There are no real secrets in farming: Big data is met with skepticism from farmers

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SALEM, Ohio — “There are no real secrets in farming,” said Brian Watkins, a grain and hog farmer near Kenton, Ohio.

 

A drive by his farm on a daily basis would tell his neighbors enough about how he runs his operation — from the tractors he drives to the seeds he uses to plant in his field, and the methods he uses to plant them. He describes this as “observable data.”

 

Watkins farms 7,000 acres with his family and has been using precision agriculture — and generating big data — on his farm for many years.

 

Privacy concerns

While big data has been beneficial in the growing world of precision agriculture, it has also been met with farmer skepticism in regards to privacy and security.

In today’s society, “there is no such thing as ‘totally secure’,” Watkins said.

 

Everything from Internet browsing history to credit card history is stored in  databases. Likewise, the use of drones and satellite imagery is offering more accurate ways to evaluate the land and there are few restrictions on who can operate those devices and take those photos.

 

But, the apprehension of farmers to share their data makes it harder to identify their needs, said Scott Shearer, chair of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Ohio State University.

 

Shearer hopes the creation of a new Agricultural Data Cooperative will address most security concerns.

 

The cooperative

An independent nonprofit organization managed by Ohio State, the cooperative is an effort to create a database of shared information that is accessible to farmers, agribusinesses and land grant institutions.

 

By placing land grant institutions at the center of the cooperative, they will serve as an unbiased partner and, hopefully, build trust. Universities can also use the data to develop methods to reduce crop loss and combat crop diseases.

 

“I believe the cooperative was designed to address the security issues from the farmer’s point of view and give the farmers more control of their data,” said Watkins. “The whole purpose of the cooperative is to give farmer-centric, farmer-led enterprises control of the data.”

 

If the data is usable to agribusinesses, those companies should be returning that value to farmers in the form of better equipment or improved seed technologies, he added.

 

Understanding data

Security and privacy concerns are not the only reasons farmers may be hesitant to use data to run their operations. Watkins said, “some measuring devices are somewhat crude” and data can be misleading and sometimes inaccurate.

 

For farmers who have good data, “does it draw you to make good decisions?” Having the right tools to navigate the data is important.

 

“I think a lot of farmers tend to get discouraged with this,” Watkins said. But the industry is improving every year — sometimes every day.

 

“Farmers will adapt to technology if they see the payback,” said Watkins. But in order to see that payback, they must be willing to take the risk.

 

While data ownership and privacy concerns are a big issue, Watkins believes “it is a bad reason not to explore using big data. Using the data makes you a better farmer.”

 

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