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Big Data – Big Potential, Big Questions


Richard Wilkins planted his 44th crop this spring. The Greenwood, Del., farmer started as a 12-year-old when he planted five acres of soybeans, in which he had a financial stake, on his father’s farm.

Throughout his farming career, he has always focused on “keeping records and collecting data, examining what worked and what didn’t.” So, Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association, is definitely interested in so-called big data.

But Wilkins, who made his comments during the recent North American Agricultural Journalists’ conference in Washington, D.C., has mixed feelings on the subject.

On one hand, he sees great potential, especially for younger farmers adept at implementing new technologies. On the other, he worries that farms of modest size might not be able to afford the cost of big data.

Other farmers and agriculturalists across the country also are struggling to get a better handle on big data. The consensus answer: Though murky and evolving, it holds promise.

Big data “can help you make better decisions whether you’re the farmer, or an input provider, or a manufacturer, or a food company,” says Ron LeMay, CEO of FarmLink, a national leader in the use of data and precision agriculture in ag. He also met with ag journalists during their annual convention in the nation’s capitol.

David Mulla, director for the Precision Agriculture Center at University of Minnesota Extension, says big data “is a valuable thing, if we can mine the data. Understanding the relationship between the data and the management decisions can help improve the profitability of farming and the efficiency of inputs.”

Though there’s no single or simple definition of big data, it refers to assembling small pools of data into one huge data set. Then the assembled data is analyzed and interpreted to help farmers and other agribusiness people operate more efficiently.

A concrete example of how big data could help farmers: A producer is evaluating several varieties of a certain crop to plant on a field. Big data would allow him to examine a huge pool of assembled data on how different varieties have yielded on many other fields across his region with similar annual precipitation and soil type.

“Say there are 20 new varieties of spring wheat in Montana,” says Doug Weist, a Chouteau, Mont., farmer and owner of Farm Tech, a consulting firm. “I should be able to go online on my computer and have it tell me, ‘Well, Mr. Farmer, you should consider these three varieties and here’s why.”

Big data makes heavy use of precision agriculture to fine-tune the inputs applied to every square foot of a field. But big data goes beyond precision ag by expanding the pool of information available, experts say.

“When you can pool data from multiple fields (farmed by many different operators), you have a lot more power to identify management practices that should differ from one spot to another,” Mulla says.

Or as LaMay puts it, “You take assets already owned by farmers, and give them more value by sharing them.”

A Montana farmer evaluating wheat varieties would be able to draw on “thousands of data points,” not just a few, by tapping into big data, Weist says.

Another change is big data, which once focused primarily on static information such as annual yield numbers, is increasingly looking at real-time information such as plant health. That magnifies big data’s potential to help farmers, experts say.

Big data, which LeMay says is better described as “actionable data,” needs to be “large enough for the job at hand, but also has to be high quality.”

His own company has improved greatly at collecting high-quality information, he says.

Even so, many in agriculture say the jury is still out on big data.

“It’s so new that there’s not a lot of statistics,” says Jason Karels, who teaches precision ag classes at the Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D.

“We need more data on big data,” he says.

Though companies that sell big data products and services tout its value, impartial university research is still scarce, he says.

Security, tapping an asset

Security is a concern, too.

Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, says she’s heard from many farmers who worry that their data, if assembled into a large pool, might be used against them. Thatcher spoke with ag journalists during their convention in Washington, D.C.

Her group and a number of other prominent farm groups are working to protect farmers’ privacy.

Mulla says farmers should be cautious, but not overly concerned, about the security of their information.

Farmers also worry they won’t see their fair share of benefits from big data, Thatcher says.

Their thinking is, data is an asset to be tapped, and “if a company (involved in big data) is going to benefit, I want to benefit, too,” she says.

Weist says, “Farmers and end users keep thinking they’re on the bottom of the totem pole, and they probably are. But they can get a benefit from it.”

Ag lagging behind

Big data has been around for years, and some industries are making extensive use of it. But “agriculture lags far behind in the use of data sciences and data analytics. Data has been available in smaller pools, but not aggregates (assembled pools),” LeMay says.

Agriculture is more fragmented than many other industries, which complicates assembling data, he says.

Now, poor crop prices and farm profitability increase the need for farmers to operate more efficiently, Lemay says, pointing to what he calls “the enormous cost of imprecision.”

“To the extent we can adopt new approaches, new business models, new tools, to improve production — there’s a huge amount of revenue that can be gained from that.” he says.

Allowing inputs to be applied more efficiently is one of the strengths of big data, advocates say.

But there are other potential applications, too, such as marketing. Boosters say big data could provide farmers with more real-time data that could help with marketing, an area in which most producers say they could improve.

Farmers in Montana and other low-precipitation areas with highly variable weather have the greatest need for big data, Weist says.

“(Farmers in) our extreme climates will benefit the most” from better data because they have the most difficult decisions to make, he says.

Costs, getting started

There is concern that utilizing big data will be too costly for many farming operations.

“I hope we can find a way toward allowing more normal-sized farms to adopt these technologies without being too large a capital investment,” Wilkins says.

The cost of big data technology when it first becomes available could hamper some producers from using it initially, Weist says.

But farmers generally can tap into big data in a modest way, he and others say.

Some companies already offer services, for as little as $5 to $10 per acre, that will help producers be more efficient with their use of inputs, Mulla says.

Producers new to precision ag and big data, especially ones who aren’t technology savvy, should start with a yield monitor on their combines, experts say. They also suggest talking with local consultants or companies that offer big data and precision ag services.

Embrace change

Experts generally say precision ag and big data can help farmers survive current poor crop prices and tight profit margins.

LeMay goes further.

“Farmers, in our view, can thrive at these commodity prices, not just survive,” Lemay says. “They can do very well, if they change the way they’re doing business. A lot of farmers are doing it, a lot aren’t. Those that take advantage of it are going to be huge benefitters.”

Weist has this advice for ag producers:

“Don’t be afraid to collect data. Don’t be afraid to have someone help you process it. Don’t be afraid to share it, as long as you’re getting a benefit back from it.”

“Big data is coming,” and its importance will continue to grow, he says. “Either you accept it and embrace it. Or you stand on the sideline and get passed by.”

Source: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

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