Combined harvesters, an important device in farmers’ fields since the late 1800s, today do more than just harvest corn, soybeans and other crops. It also sends back a series of data to the manufacturer.
GPS records the exact path of the harvester in the field as it moves. Sensors count the number of crops per a meter and the distance between them. In a part of the machine called a planting machine, algorithms regulate the distribution of crops based on the harvest results of previous years of each part of the soil. Another part is the sprayer. It uses algorithms to sweep for weeds and kill them with insecticides. Meanwhile, the sensor records the wear and tear of the machines, thanks to which the parts to be replaced have been pre-ordered and available at the local distributor when the farmer comes to find them.
Farming is an industry on the ground, but now much of the work has taken place “in the clouds.” Agricultural machinery manufacturers such as Chicago’s John Deere or Georgia’s AGCO collect data from around the world thanks to machines capable of extracting and storing huge amounts of data online from fields. The farmer in the driver’s seat of these machines has access to the data that they themselves have collected, but the ambiguity of the law has led to the question of whether they own that data that has not been clarified, and only the manufacturer can see all the data from the machines rented or sold.
The accumulation of all that data in the hands of several large companies selling agricultural equipment nationwide or worldwide opened up great opportunities for the “smart agriculture” industry, even if many in the peasant community did not want to share information about the fields they plowed.
Seth Crawford, AGCO vice president, said in an interview: “I think we are on the boundary of stepping up to a real revolution. “What has gripped us over the years” explains Crawford, “is the inatifling of data fast enough to work at different levels of crops, such as on acres. “Now, with all the technology included and processing speed, we can operate in real time.”
As a sign of a potential turning point, earlier this year Deere created a new role, which is chief technology officer. The company says it now sees itself as a technology company. And for its part, AGCO considers itself “both a technology company and an agricultural equipment company”, Crawford said, adding that the company is actively recruiting software engineers and scientists.
In the course of all these advances, farmers worry that they have virtually no benefits. Many people worry that allowing their data to be transferred to the producer will cause it to accidentally fall into the hands of neighboring farmers, who are scrambling for scarce land with them, after which closely protected information about the number of acres of land they are plowing or the fertilizers and pesticides they are using will be exploited by opponents for benefits competitive advantage.
Agricultural researchers say such a scenario would be unlikely. Device manufacturers are sensitive to the perception that they are invading farmers’ privacy, will not share farmer data with third parties, and data is aggregated by each farmer. However, a 2019 paper argues that these concerns are partly the result of a lack of legal and regulatory standards around data collection from intelligent farming technologies.
One undoubted thing is the value of the aggregated data.
In theory, equipment manufacturers with enough machine sales nationwide are actually predictable, at least to a small extent but meaningful, in terms of the prices of different crops by analyzing the data that their machines send. Such as the “output” of crops per a m acres, the amount of fertilizer used, or the average number of seeds of a given plant grown in different regions. Assuming that, then the company sells that data to a businessman, it can be very profitable. Often, markets have to wait for government surveys to carry out their processes.
Mary Kay Thatcher, a former official with the U.S. Farm Bureau, raised such concerns in an interview with National Public Radio in 2014, when questions about data ownership were swirling after Monsanto began implementing a new “precision planting” tool that required a lot of data.
“They can really manipulate the market,” Thatcher said in the interview. You know, they just need to know information about what’s really happening when harvesting before others know.”
‘I’m not saying they would. It’s just a concern.”