First major ag company John Deere gets on board the transparency data chain

Perhaps one of the problems for the lack of transparency and widespread adoption of technology for farmers and the agricultural community at large, is the association of bitcoin with blockchain. While the two have emerged into the mainstream at about the same time, and, yes, both are virtual, they are two different things.

Blockchain is really quite simple, and something that within the supply chain context is a reasonable solution that could (without wanting to overstate its potential) effectively transform the ag business. It’s a decentralized and secure ledger that proves traceability. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that is designed on a blockchain reporting system.

The lack of technology and transparency adoption could also be a fundamental way of business as usual in the ag community. In other words, there are some things for which no solutions exist, like whether or not it rains and other “acts of God.”

Ed Kasper, Owner of Kasper Ag Solutions in Poplar Grove, IL, writes in an opinion piece on Precision Ag, “Most growers in my area don’t use their data. Sure, they have yield maps and some even have variable rate (VR) prescriptions, but that’s about as far as it goes. The yield map book usually serves as a coaster more than a decision tool. VR maps look nice but most don’t find a correlation to the bottom line. They get soil tests and the fertilizer company tells them how much fertilizer they need (which I’ve often equated to asking a drug dealer if I need more drugs).”

But what about if you could have a value-add for identifying where, say, grain comes from? Blockchain could help you do just that. Blockchain is certainly full of a lot of hype, and to hear about it for the first time, especially with its link to the cryptocurrency bubble, may make it sound like a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Looking specifically at trade, blockchain technology is poised to make a huge difference in transparency for both grain and livestock markets. This past week, Coindesk reported that Chinese-based is partnering with Australia’s InterAgri blockchain platform to track beef imports into China. The database will log an animal’s birthplace and where it was processed, among other data points. Could this mark a beginning of widespread blockchain adoption in agriculture?

There are other resistances related to fear of the unknown, and if it “ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Monitors have been collecting data in farmers’ cabs since the mid-’90s, so there is plenty of data that can be “harvested.” Knowing how to use the data seems to lead the list of why there isn’t more transparency. It amounts to having a massive toolbox but not knowing what the tools could be used for.

Whether its through value-added services through the use of blockchain technology, increasing yield rates through higher-level aggregated (and cooperatively shared) data, or the adoption of powerful autonomous “farmbots,” dramatic change is coming.

Perhaps the basic underlying cause for widespread adoption and sharing of data is simply privacy and how the data is being used. Why would farmers (or large corporations for that matter) want the data they’ve collected and ideated to assist competitors?

It was from those very concerns that the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) came up with a solution. Data was already being collected and uploaded into a cloud-based system to help farmers in their fields, including projected yield and rain totals, to make business decisions such as when to work their fields and how much fertilizer and pesticides to apply. Then, concerns arose about how companies were using the information.

Back in November 2014, The AFBF consulted with various stakeholders in the data equation to come up with the Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data. The AFBF tasked Todd Janzen, an Indianapolis-based lawyer, to develop an evaluator.

The Ag Data Transparent “seal of approval” is a process designed to ensure that companies use the appropriate principles with an extensive questionnaire and an annual membership fee that ranges from $2,000 to $6,000.

The organization launched a certification in 2016 coupled with the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator. The 13 principles lay out rules for data collection and agreements between agtech companies and farmers. The principles include making sure farmers know what data was collected, why, and that it not be reported to anyone without farmer permission. The data agreements undergo a third-party review to make sure they comply with the core principles. If so, the company can use the seal. 30 companies signed on to the agreement, but as of last month, only nine had followed through with transparent compliance.

“We had hoped definitely that companies would participate more quickly,” Janzen said in an interview. “There is no reason that anybody cannot participate. What we are evaluating is transparency, so, for the most part, we don’t say what the right or wrong answer is, we make sure companies say what they’re doing.”

Janzen testified before Congressional committees in July and November of 2017. He told the committees that farmers have a lack of trust when it comes to who is using their data, citing a farm bureau study that found 77 percent of farmers are concerned about who can access their data on the cloud.

The good news is that this past week a big player in the slow-to-adopt industry, John Deere, has recently announced it obtained the Ag Data Transparent (ADT) seal of approval. Deere’s recent announcement is considered the first of the major companies to sign on.

“This is big news…Deere was one of the first major farm equipment manufacturers to build out its own cloud-based platform for the collection, storage, and use of ag data. Deere is now the first major equipment manufacturer to achieve the ADT certification. I suspect others will follow,” said Janzen.

Among those who have yet to do so are some of the industry’s biggest players–Monsanto, Dow DuPont, and CNH Industrial. The reasons for continued lack of compliance are complex and varied. Ultimately, it seems the lack of trust persists.

One of the first companies to sign on was Agrible, an agtech company based in Champaign, IL. The company focuses on helping farmers make informed decisions about management practices.

Agrible’s system collects data that shows how farmers run their business, said Jason Little, director of sales. This includes weather, the best days to work your field, yield information, and how much pesticides and fertilizer are applied. These data points are considered the basic building blocks of useful information for your typical farmer.

Importantly, this data is for the farmers themselves, not the shared, aggregate kind.

“It’s the grower’s data. It’s always the grower’s data,” Little said. They only use aggregate data with the grower’s permission.

Perhaps this approach is also a building block of the collaboration and trust necessary to continue the push for widespread technological adoption.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.