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SPOTLIGHT
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The 'big data' deal

Published on -7/23/2014, 10:07 AM

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Some believe "big data" might be the next renaissance in agriculture. Others call it the greatest advance in agriculture since the Green Revolution during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when one of the biggest waves of research and technology spurred the growth of agricultural production around the world. Some compare big data with the biotech revolution.

High praise, but still so many questions remain about big data.

Pressing questions facing farmers now are: Who owns this big data? Who controls it and how will it be used?

And if you don't know what big data is, join the crowd; there are countless people who don't know or have multiple and diverse answers.

Not to alarm anyone, but less than a year ago, few people had heard this buzz word that means gathering and analyzing the vast amount of digital information produced by farmers.

Drones flying above farmland recording high resolution images, and field sensors providing immediate information concerning crop conditions including moisture, nutrients, pests, etc., might become commonplace during the big ag-data era.

No matter what beatitudes are bestowed on big data, most believe and hope it will improve farmers' yields and productivity. Some say it will help feed the growing population expected to hit 9 billion in 2050. Agri-business companies are banking on its future.

Successful farmers and ranchers always have kept data. While it might have begun when the first caveman dug a hole in the soil and planted the first seed and progressed to a pocket-sized notebook and pencil, keeping and gathering information always has been beneficial to profitable agriculture.

About the mid-1990s, gathering data rocketed forward as computer technology fueled the concept of precision agriculture. This only intensified with the application and interest driven by the ever-growing data infrastructure. Greater affordability of this technology, coupled with more computer processing power, also has fanned the usage flames.

Prescriptive planting or relating soil, climate and seed data with a farmer's productions records seem to be some of the potential of big data in agriculture. The potential for an increase in grain yields is another potential.

During the last few years, the Guettermans in Johnson and Miami counties have used big data equipment provided by John Deere on their family farms. Nick Guetterman believes the more information he has at his disposal, the more likely he is to figure a better way to do things.

What he's most interested in during this initial phase of using these new data collecting tools is to become even more efficient, farm as productively as possible and increase the return on his investment.

"Farmers collect data on almost every pass over the field -- planting data, tillage data, spraying records and machine performance," Nick said. "We're trying to help use this data in real time -- right now to make decisions that potentially make us better, more profitable farmers. Before we always looked at this data and analyzed it after the fact."

But who gets that information -- the farmer or the provider? Will they be prescribing what best suits their interests or those of the farmer?

Guetterman believes because he's paid for the equipment, the data should belong to him and not be shared with anyone without his knowledge and permission. He'd also like to know what companies collecting big ag data are doing with this information.

The Johnson/Miami County farmer said he's been told the data is not being used individually but in an aggregate format. Guetterman also believes companies selling ag-data services acknowledge farmers' concerns in their policy and marketing statements, but their contracts don't make that explicit.

"A farmer makes decisions based on his own experience and expertise, supplemented with his own data," Guetterman said. "That's how I produce value as a manager."

Some producers also worry the proliferation of ag data will erode the advantages producers have developed throughout several generations. Farmers such as Guetterman also harbor real concerns about data privacy. That's the world today's farmers live in.

Stay tuned.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwest Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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