Plan afoot to protect farm data

NEW ORLEANS, La. — A leading U.S. farm organization believes it has found a way to give farmers peace of mind about sharing their data.

The American Farm Bureau Federation spearheaded the formation of the Agricultural Data Coalition, a central data repository where farmers can store and manage the information collected by their tractors, combines and aerial drones.

That data can then be formatted, synchronized and transmitted to third parties such as researchers, crop insurance agents, government officials, farm managers, input providers and advisers.

A pilot version of the repository will be launched this spring, and a few dozen farmers will be asked to add their data to the system to work out kinks before it is made available to all growers.

Matt Bechdol, executive director of the coalition, said it will be a safe and secure place for farmers to store their data, and they will be in control of how much they put on and who gets access.

“It minimizes the burden of data management for the grower,” he said.

“That allows them to focus on decisions.”

The coalition was two years in the making. It was designed by 10 organizations, including the bureau, technology providers, farm advisers and universities.

Jeremy Wilson, vice-chair of the Precision Ag Council, said the coalition provides farmers with a single spot where they can direct service providers who want to access their data.

It also provides growers with the ability to build an archive of their data, which isn’t practical to do on their own.

“If you want me to produce all of my raw data for the last 15 years of experience I have in precision ag today, I’d probably need to find five portable hard drives, three USB sticks and a couple of laptops that are ready to die,” he said.

It potentially opens up a service provider’s access to all of a farm’s data rather than dribs and drabs.

“If we’re going to provide a full package and a full solution to these growers to maximize profits and minimize environmental impacts, I need everything. I’ve got to have it all,” said Wilson.

Scott Shearer, chair of Ohio State University’s food, agricultural and biological engineering department, said the centralized database will prove invaluable for university research and extension agronomy.

“We have always had the trust of farmers and producers and hopefully that continues in the data space as well,” he said.

Shearer said research out of Iowa shows 10 to 15 percent of U.S. farmers already use data storage locations. Another 65 percent said they would consider it but are concerned about losing control of their information.

“We’re trying to provide a comfort level to bring at least a portion of that 65 percent in,” he said.

To that end, the group has come up with 13 privacy and security principles for farm data. Companies and other organizations wanting to access coalition data have to sign a document agreeing to respect those principles.

Thirty-six agricultural technology providers have signed the document, and the group expects many more to follow.

Shearer has spoken to many influential growers in Ohio who were reluctant to share their data directly with corporations but would seriously consider joining the coalition because they feel more in control of their data.

“We’re focused on farmers and the farmers’ needs,” he said.

Bechdol said the coalition’s benefits outweigh the risks .

“There are two types of concrete in this world — concrete that is cracked and concrete that is going to crack. Security is the same way,” he said. “Am I going to lose sleep overnight because someone might hack my data, or am I going to lose sleep overnight because I don’t have a good idea what my bottom line is in my operation?”

Bechdol said the coalition will work with the brightest minds to keep farm data secure.

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