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House Agriculture Committee Examines Big Data Implications in Agriculture

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Puddle in front of a farm (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

This article first appeared in the Lancaster Farmer, November 7th Edition.

On October 28, the House Ag Committee held a public hearing to survey the role big data plays in the agriculture industry. “Big data” is a term that gets thrown around frequently these days. Between the media and the technology industry, it can be quite confusing navigating what this means to farmers. While agricultural technology has presented great advancements like improved productivity, efficiency, and a more in-depth qualitative look at unique farmland, these advancements also present challenges, including collecting, managing, utilizing, and owning data. The hearing allowed for members and witness to discuss these dynamics and the future of technology in agriculture.

Chairman Mike Conway in his opening statement said, “Big data has what seems like a boundless potential to improve the efficiency, profitability, and competiveness of our nation’s farmers and ranchers.” Before these benefits can be realized, however, he said the “important question of how to protect producer privacy and private property rights” must be answered. The Chairman’s hopes for the hearing were to have the panel of witnesses and the Committee “fully explore these, and perhaps other relevant issues.”

The witness list included:

· Mr. Blake Hurst, President, Missouri Farm Bureau, Member of the Board of Directors, American Farm Bureau Federation, Tarkio, MO

· Mr. Billy Tiller, Director of Business Development and Co-Founder, Grower Information Services Cooperative, Lubbock, TX

· Dr. Michael K. Stern, President and Chief Operating Officer, The Climate Corporation and Vice President, Monsanto, San Francisco, CA

· Mr. Matt Rushing, Vice President, Product Line, Advanced Technology Solutions, AGCO, Duluth, GA

· Dr. Shannon Ferrell, Associate Professor and Faculty Teaching Fellow, Agricultural Law Department of Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK

White fence on a farm (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

Witnesses were somewhat split in their opinion on whether and to what extent the government should be involved in the ownership and privacy rights issues at the heart of the hearing. Hurst testified on behalf of his group, commodity associations such as the American Soybean Association, and big agribusinesses, such as John Deere, DuPont Pioneer, and Monsanto, stressing that the government should stay out of data privacy issues. In his testimony, he pointed out that “farmers prefer this teamwork, “business-to- business” approach over a regulatory or legislative “fix” because we believe the market will provide the process to address problems if farmers have an equal footing with agribusinesses. If we rely on the government to make changes, the undue overhead might irreversibly deter innovation.”

Tiller, like Hurst, also believed that government should not be in the middle of data privacy right and ownership issues in agriculture. Tiller is the founder of Grower Information Services Cooperative, a data grower-owned cooperative whose formation was based on the idea that growers need an easy way to securely store and access their information and to share that information with those who serve and support them. Tiller testified, “while USDA’s role in the quality and standards for data is important, we believe the marketplace should be the source of new innovations in the world of big data.”

Stern, the president and CEO of Climate Corporation which was acquired by Monsanto in 2013, testified that “[a]s a company that will utilize our customers’ data in the course of developing these transformational digital tools, we take our commitment to safe-guarding that data very seriously.” Not only does Climate Corporation outline privacy and security issues in its contracts with growers but it has also endorsed, and helped develop, the American Farm Bureau’s principles for data privacy. Stern testified that “[t]hese principles give farmers a framework on how to assess privacy policies as they consider doing business with data companies.” Although Stern did not have a clear statement on whether the government should be involved in outlining protections for agriculture data, his testimony seemed to point towards the marketplace as the guidance that is necessary when he said, “[w]e believe that the digital ag revolution and the Climate Corporation’s unique technologies will drive innovation to help achieve these important goals.”

Man using an iPad in a corn field (Photo from Pioneer Website).

Rushing, a vice president for the farm equipment manufacturer, AGCO, encourages farmers to share their data, testifying that a major hurdle the company faces is educating farmers on what farm data is. He explains that there is a lot of confusion among farmers “and some fear of the unknown surrounding agricultural data.” Rushing also testified that in order to “respect growers’ data privacy choices, we’ve separated our data pipelines; one for machine data, and one for more sensitive agronomic data.” Rushing pointed out that there is no clear legal property term for farm data where other industries would consider this type of data to be trade secret. Rushing made no testament as to whether he believed the government should be involved in resolving that issue, but addressed the perplexity of what farm data is and what protections are required.

Ferrell had suggestions of where a legal framework could help define some of the Chairman’s main issues. Ferrell framed the issues he believed were the most all-encompassing under two umbrellas: ownership of data and the unauthorized disclosure of agricultural data. Ferrell’s testimony addressed the concern many farmers have about privacy rights when it comes to their data being collected and housed in a database by their agriculture technology provider (a party external to the farm providing a service such as chemical application, custom cultivators, etc.) He explained that “[t]he current intellectual property framework fails to provide a clear niche for agricultural data in the realms of trademark, patent, or copyright law. Agricultural data may fit within the realm of trade secret, but that fit is, at best, arguable. To the extent Congress wishes to enhance the intellectual property rights held by agricultural producers in agricultural data, adaptation of the Uniform Trade Secret Act to accommodate the unique characteristics of agricultural data may be a viable approach.”

Although there are differing opinions on the role government should play in privacy, ownership, and security issues circling the advancement of agricultural technology, everyone seems to agree that there are challenges to be faced alongside the benefits. As Chairman Mike Conway said, hopefully these issues will be flushed out extensively and resolved to farmers’ benefit — and not with farmers having to concern themselves with the issues currently being debated.

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