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Published April 21, 2014, 10:03 AM

Farmers concerned with providing info to companies

WASHINGTON — Farm leaders and executives from companies offering “prescriptive” services to farmers that involve collecting data on their individual planting, operating and harvesting practices met in Kansas City on April 10 to discuss issues such as privacy and security of the farmers’ data.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Farm leaders and executives from companies offering “prescriptive” services to farmers that involve collecting data on their individual planting, operating and harvesting practices met in Kansas City on April 10 to discuss issues such as privacy and security of the farmers’ data.

American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher, who organized the meeting, told Agweek that those in attendance “agreed it was positive and continued valuable dialogue among the groups was a good idea.

“We will all be taking the discussion topics back to our associations, board, companies, etc. to discuss and see where we go from here,” she said. “All agreed we will look for additional ways to continue this dialogue and provide leadership on data privacy issues.”

Farmers are already worried about the Environmental Protection Agency getting hold of their data, but this situation is more complicated because a range of private companies could gain access to the information, even though the companies offering the services say they will not share it or will share it only in limited ways.

“Prescription agriculture is to the agriculture industry what biotechnology was the past 20 years,” Thatcher said. But she added it is important that farmers read the fine print and understand the privacy issues surrounding the release of their data and that some kind of system be developed to set guidelines or regulations for the use of the information.

“Just as you forfeit ownership of data in a smartphone, you may forfeit your privacy with an ag tech provider,” she said.

Thatcher also said farmers would be wise not to have too much confidence in statements from companies that say they will “anonymize” the collected data and say privacy will be protected.

One question is whether a farmer who uses Monsanto seed and provides data to that company can get the data back from Monsanto if he switches to a DuPont Pioneer seed.

“The answer seems to be no,” Thatcher said.

Sharing data

An official with the Climate Corp., a San Francisco-based data and crop insurance company recently bought by Monsanto, said at the Commodity Classic meeting this winter it will operate separately and farmers can provide information on all the seeds, whether they are Monsanto or not.

But Thatcher said farmers might still be concerned the information might be shared with Monsanto.

She said some companies have told Farm Bureau they will share data “within the family of companies” they do business with. But Thatcher said she wonders if companies will share data with third parties with which it has contracts.

Purdue University is setting up its own system to collect data and provide prescriptions, but Thatcher said Farm Bureau is nervous a system located at a land-grant college could be subject to federal Freedom of Information Act requests.

She said “the third rail” is a proposal that the recipient to which the data would be delivered is the local seed dealer. The company, which Thatcher did not name, said this process would be trusted by farmers because it involves the local seed dealer.

Farmers, she said, are also concerned knowledge of their farming practices could lead to market manipulation. Companies have said they will not use the data for market activities, but farmers fear a future CEO could change company policy, Thatcher added.

Farmers have also suggested they should be paid for their data if the companies are using the information, but so far the reaction from companies has been “Hell, no” she said.

Thatcher said she expects a “massive rollout” of the prescription services in the Midwest for the 2014 crop year, but no consensus on standards is likely to be reached before that.

Farm Bureau has prepared a “Data Privacy Expectation Guide,” asking farmers to consider the following issues before providing data to a company:

• Do you own the data?

• How will the data be used and what benefits will you receive from allowing a provider to include data in a database?

• Will you control management of the data?

• What is aggregated data, and how can it protect you?

• Is your personal farm data “anonymized,” or made nonpersonal, and how is “anonymized” defined?

• Can you stop sharing your data once you agreed to share?

• Who else might have access to the data, and can it be released to the public or a third party?

• What is the value of data to you?

• What is the value of the data to the company?

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