Online ag mapping gets caught in the crossfire of a privacy dispute

A running battle between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a company trying to gain access to private farmer information has resulted in blocking the use of that and several other sets of data, in particular the Common Land Unit data. CLU da...

A running battle between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a company trying to gain access to private farmer information has resulted in blocking the use of that and several other sets of data, in particular the Common Land Unit data. CLU data defines the borders and acreage of a farm field and is considered a valuable tool to farming and other ag industries.

Online agricultural mapping services are relatively new but reliable sources of graphic and photographic map layouts of individual farming acreage. Several ag sectors are taking advantage of easily available CLU data, soil data, imagery and topography that provide bird's-eye views of any farmland in the Lower 48 states with which they are concerned. An earmark in the new farm bill now is blocking access to the CLU data, which is gathered on a continual basis by USDA's Farm Service Agency and made available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A step backward

According to David Hagert, co-owner of AgriData Inc. in Grand Forks, N.D., a provider of online agricultural mapping services, these restrictions translate into "lost productivity and represent a step backwards for modern agriculture practices."

Businesses have been launched and products developed to provide more efficient, effective services for the farmer at a lower cost, he says.


Not only farmers, but ranchers, applicators, crop consultants, crop insurance agents, land managers and rural real estate appraisers all have a stake in the availability of the CLU data. This information defines the borders of agricultural fields, helping to provide information relative to that field's acreage, location and land value.

AgriData has been using this data since 2004. Before it was made available to the public, Hagert had to pay a team of people to manually draw in the field borders for his customers. The introduction of the CLU data changed that, he says, and he was able to lower prices to his customers by roughly 25 percent to 30 percent.


Hagert says that it all began with the dispute over access to farmer information, which is protected under the Privacy Act. An agricultural magazine publisher, Multi Ag Media L.L.C., had requested access to USDA-gathered information, including farmer compliance information, what they planted, when they planted it, where they planted it and what they received in payments. Denied this access by USDA, they had sued, arguing that because the data had been collected by the government using taxpayer dollars, they, being taxpayers, should have the right to use it.

The company lost the initial case, but on appeal in October 2007, a U.S. district judge in Washington overturned the decision and ruled that they were entitled to the information.

Not surprisingly, reaction to the new ruling was quick and extensive. A blanket change had been slipped into Section 1619 of the new farm bill that would protect not only the private information, but much more. The change says USDA cannot disclose "(A) information provided by an agricultural producer or owner of agricultural land concerning the agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices, or the land itself, in order to participate in programs of the Department; or (B) geospatial information otherwise maintained by the Secretary about agricultural land or operations."

"I don't have any problem with keeping the compliance data out of it, but they added the word 'geospatial' to section 1619, and that's what killed the CLU data," Hagert says.

It was a wholesale shutdown intended to protect private information about farmers at USDA, as it should be, but in the process, other data, including the geospatial, or CLU border and acreage information, also was locked down.


Fixing 1619

Unlocking Section 1619 to again allow public access to the CLU data will require a technical correction or an amendment to the farm bill. Hagert contacted members of North Dakota's congressional delegation, who encouraged him to start pulling together the support of farm organizations to get it changed.

"We've spoken with the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, the North Dakota Grain Growers Association and they have all signed letters or written resolutions stating they would like to have this returned," he says. The North Dakota Farmers Union, the National Agricultural Aviation Association, the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, the American Society of Farm Managers & Rural Appraisers and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture also are on board.

The only opposition they have encountered is with the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is hedging against concerns for protection of farmer information. Aside from compliance issues, the "one that the farmers are usually the most scared of is the wetlands (data) because then environmental groups can utilize that for what they want. That's one the farmers usually don't like to have floating around," Hagert says.

But he remains concerned only with the CLU data. With support in place from the ag community, he soon will be able to enlist congressional help and, with a little luck, get the farm bill fixed.

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