The Risks and Rewards of Big Data

A drone helicopter flying over a digitized farm field representing data collection

When it comes to modern farming, is there such a thing as too much information? The amount of data available to farmers today offers growers access to detail that is both small scale and big picture so they can adjust most of all aspects of growing, producing and selling agricultural products.

“Big data” is the term given for information gathered by smart sensors and devices. The amount of information available is immense and can have a big impact on decision-making.

“Currently the agriculture industry is using data primarily to monitor trends such as soil quality and watershed information over time” says Brandon Eagan, an Automation Systems Engineer with Dutch Openers. “They are able to leverage existing technology to see and measure trends to make their business more efficient.”

While it can be hard to define how much data is being collected each and every day on a farm, a single smart tractor can collect on average 30 MB of information per day. Farmers also receive a high volume of information from drones, sensors, weather equipment, apps and other resources. Equipment such as combines, tractors and sprays offer real-time information can help make be critical in decision making.

The point is that while somewhat late to the game, agriculture has become very good at collecting data. In recent years, there has been an explosion in investment into digital ag platforms that compiles information and presents it back to the grower in a usable format.  Artificial intelligence, in terms of the predictive technology that goes along with those platforms is still in its early stages, with farmers still choosing how to use this information for their benefit.

Weather Watching

Data can’t predict the weather, but it can show patterns and the impact it can have on production systems. It can show the moisture in the ground not only on a field-by-field basis, but it can also drill down to smaller areas, allowing irrigation systems to become highly targeted. This same approach is applied to nutrient application, weed control and insect management. Data can show the warning signs for disease long before scouting shows visible crop damage.

This type of stats is all aimed at increasing yield or improving the economics of farming. It uses sensors, weather patterns and drones to make the most targeted agronomic decisions possible. Growers can also use information to make decisions on what they are going to grow before they order their seed and how they are going to market their crop based on changing market conditions.

Whose Data Is It?

But with all of this data collection comes the inevitable questions. Who owns and has access to it? Where is it being stored? Much of the storage of farm data is Cloud-based which, while generally secure, can also be at risk for hacking. These questions are of increasing concern to growers in Canada.

A 2018 Farm Credit Canada (FCC) survey found that more than 70 percent of respondents said that governance of data was extremely important to them. FCC was the first company in Canada to receive the Ag Data Transparent seal for its commitment to safeguarding farmers’ data. The US-based not-for profit assures its users transparency in all collected data. FCC makes sure all apps they are connected to are also ADT certified.

“Transparency and integrity are fundamental to what we do,” says Fred Wall, FCC marketing vice-president in a press release. “We want our customers, the producers, to know we are taking this seriously. Third party verification shows they can trust us with their information.”

Protect Your Data

One way growers can protect their data is simply to know where it is being stored. Collected data can be stored on a participating app’s server, on a hard drive or in the Cloud. Data will always have value – hackers can use data to predict pricing. Large marketing companies can look at how farmers as a group are growing to swing markets and profit from your information.

“Any company that is worth doing business with, or any product that growers are going to want to use, will be open to protecting growers’ information,” says Eagan. “While at this point growers may not even know how this information can be misused, they are naturally wary about the potential for misuse and most information-based systems are designing processes that address those concerns.”

Big data has the potential to make farming more environmentally sustainable, more financially viable, more responsive to market demand and able to produce and move food with less wastage. Data provides powerful tools, but growers need to be able to trust that their data is being managed in a way that protects their farms and their industry.