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As Data Meets Farm Fields, Concerns Begin to Grow

Farmers no longer just have to worry about whether it will rain too much or too little, or whether prices for their crops will be high enough to cover their costs. Now, growers increasingly are on edge about big data.

They’re concerned about the privacy of the remarkably precise data that’s now being collected about every aspect of how they farm. That includes what types of seeds they plant and where; how much and what kinds of chemicals they’re applying to their crops and where; and the exact crop yields at any single point in their fields.

All that data is computerized and marked via GPS to the exact point on the farm where it’s found.

What if a company could make a killing on the commodity markets because it had access to the real-time data on the quantity and quality of the corn that farmers were combining on a fall day in the Midwest? “That data has real value to it,” said Brian Marshall, a Missouri farmer. Last year, farmers harvested more than $60 billion in corn, so even tiny swings in markets can add up.

What if an environmental group could use a lawsuit to find out exactly how much of a pesticide farmers had applied to their fields?

And what if a seed company started boosting its prices for one farmer but not for a neighboring grower, because the firm knew the first farmer produced bigger crops than the other?

“Precision farming technology is really exciting and presents a lot of opportunities for agriculture ... but data and privacy issues are very important,” said Scott VanderWal, a grower who is president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau.

The data’s exact nature has allowed farmers to increase their crop yields for several years, even in the face of droughts and flooding, while using fewer chemicals.

Until now, the information has been safely stored in the farmers’ computerized tractors and combines or their home computers. But the biggest names in agribusiness, including DuPont Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Deere & Co., as well as Monsanto Co., are taking the technology to a new level of sophistication and usefulness by collecting and analyzing it for farmers online and via the cloud.

The concerns were heightened last fall, when Monsanto announced it was spending almost $1 billion to acquire the Climate Corp., a company founded by ex-Google engineers that compiles hyperlocal weather data and uses yield forecasting and agronomic modeling to insure farmers’ profits. Farmers can access the data through the company’s website or on mobile devices.

The Climate Corp. acquisition followed Monsanto’s purchase of Precision Planting Inc., an Illinois company that makes equipment for inserting seeds at exact depths and spacing. Late last year, two Monsanto rivals in the biotech seed business, subsidiaries of DuPont and Dow, announced partnerships with John Deere that will challenge Monsanto in data analysis.

Then there are concerns about what the government might do with the data. Earlier in 2013, farm groups were outraged when they learned that the EPA had turned over to some environmental groups information about livestock farms, including the numbers of animals in production and farmers’ phone numbers. The EPA said the information was publicly available but later asked for the data back.

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