of the harvested crop. If everyone who planted that same variety uploaded that information to the same platform, then you can start to do some benchmarking on that seed variety to figure out optimal performance characteristics, for example, if the seed performed better in dryer climates or with certain amounts of irrigation. Collectively putting together all of those farmer data sets into one giant aggregated data set allows you to learn things about that crop that you otherwise would never know or that you would learn only through isolated trials.
Q: Why should growers care about big data?
A: The promise of big data is that it will lead to reduced inputs for crops and increased yields. It should also reduce a grower’s environmental footprint because they will be able to do more with less.
Q: For a grower, what is the first step to get into using big data?
A: When you are talking about big data, there is strength in numbers. If I was a grower, one thing I would want to know is, “How large of a data pool is out there that is the same as or similar to my farm.” If you are the first farmer in a big data set, then it is just your data. If there are multiple farms that are similar in soil type, climate, etc., then you are going to get better results.
From a data privacy standpoint, I would also want to know what steps a company takes to protect my information that is strictly related to my farm. How do they anonymize my data so that it isn’t shared more widely in the data pool?
Many companies that growers are already working with (such as equipment manufacturers) offer these types of data collection services. There are also a number of startup companies that help growers collect and analyze data that provide a different service to farmers that doesn’t include equipment promotion. I would suggest a grower sign up for a year
trial with a company to see if they get results back that pay for use of the service. If not, try someone else.
Q: What do you see for the future of big data in ag?
A: I think we need to focus on two things right now — one of those is collecting good data. Because so much of the data collection that is happening right now is reliant on human input, farmers have to manually upload their information about how a crop is grown. This may not be done consistently, and you may not get good results from everyone. Something that I hear over and over is that the quality of agronomic data is still poor. If you put junk in, you get junk out.
Part two is to focus on building better analytics. Initially, there was a lot of promise that the analytics would be mind- blowing, and we were going to learn things about crops that we had no idea about. I’m not sure that promise has been delivered yet. But with better quality data, I think the analytics will get a lot better. It’s just going to take some time.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: Being a good farmer is always based upon how much information you can derive from what you have done in the past and then using that information to shape your decisions going forward. To the extent that you can harness data to help with future decision-making, then using it is absolutely a good thing and should be a real benefit to farmers.
When dealing with big data, you are really only looking at what has been done in the past — what has worked and what hasn’t worked. It isn’t always going to give you suggestions about how to try something new because your datasets are all based on past decisions. So you still have to experiment or do things out of the ordinary to see if they work.
Todd Janzen is the owner of Janzen Ag Law. He writes a regular blog discussing these types of ag tech issues at www.aglaw.us/janzenaglaw
HOW DO YOU PAY FOR DATA SERVICES?
per hour or annual fee – agronomist compares your data to that from other farmers and provides advice
per acre – pay a fee per acre of data you put into the system
flat annual fee — full access as a member subscriber
no additional fees — no fee because a grower is already using or buying the company’s equipment and products and the data platform is value-add for customers
JANZEN’S ADVICE FOR GROWERS
Have a frank discussion with the sales rep before you pull the trigger. Ask them questions like:
• Are you Ag Data Transparent certified?
• If I want to pull my data out at the end of the year subscription, can I do that?
• Can you promise me that the analytics will more than offset the subscription fee on a given year?
Of course, sales reps will promise you the world, but if the product does not deliver, it may be time to move on. There are many choices on the market today.
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