Privacy, interoperability remain challenges in high-tech farming

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Large agricultural companies like to imagine a future when farmers can watch over their crops; change fertilizer, nitrogen and water distribution; and even file regulatory reports from one interface on a home computer — but the industry is still working on how to get all the systems to talk to each other.

“We’re in the early stages of it,” Shannon Ferrell, an associate professor and faculty teaching fellow at Oklahoma State University, told FedScoop.

Ferrell was part of a witness panel that testified Wednesday before the House Agriculture Committee about the future of using big data and technology in farming to increase efficiency, save money and boost yield. Already, many farmers use traditional tools, like tractors, that gather data — one witness estimated as many as 70 percent of farmers use some facet of so-called precision agriculture — but lawmakers and witnesses said more could be done for high-tech farming to “reach its full potential.”

Witnesses also touched on what the government should do to address some of these challenges. (The answer? Very little, many of the panelists seemed to say.)

“Many believe that information technology — or big data as it’s been called — is the next game changer for agriculture,” committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway said in his opening statement.

During the hearing, Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, said many farmers want more transparency about how the data gathered by their equipment and IT systems are used, and have expressed concerns about privacy and security. He said last year the American Farm Bureau brought together farm and commodities groups and agriculture technology standards to develop 13 principles to govern data collection.

“Farmers prefer this teamwork 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,” he said. “If we rely on the government to make changes then undue overhead may well adversely deter innovation.”

Safeguarding agricultural data is critical, Hurst said, even comparing it to personally identifiable information.

“It may be that farmers are nervous about public knowledge of the applications they use with pesticides, even though they’re … following all the labels,” Hurst said. “So this information is sensitive in that sense. It comes very close to the level of sensitivity of financial information and Social Security numbers.”

Questions surrounding who owns data also remain a concern, members of the panel said.

“When I buy a machine, I might not always own the data that comes off my machine,” said Billy Tiller, director of business development and co-founder of the Grower Information Services Cooperative in Lubbock, Texas. “It would be like you buying a Kodak camera back in the day and realize that Kodak might want the pictures off the camera. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Ferrell said the status of agriculture data under the law is a bit murky. It doesn’t fall into areas of federal intellectual property law — trademark, patent and copyright — that could shed light on the data ownership. But it could be protected under state law as a trade secret under state law.

“If Congress chose to act on that, one thing that could be done is adapt the Uniform Trade Secret Act on a federal level or provide a more clear definition of where agriculture data fits in the concepts provided by the UTSA,” he said

Critical to extending the opportunities of precision agriculture is rural broadband, several said. Just as the federal government expanded electricity to rural areas in the New Deal era, the government should consider expanding broadband services so more farmers can benefit from these tools, said committee senior Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

“All of this technology is great, but it’s not going to do anybody any good if we don’t have reliable broadband,” he said.

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big data, data analytics, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Departments, Tech
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