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New Technology and data collection

By Rachel Lane

DC Correspondent


Washington, DC - Learning about new technology and comparing the price to a reliable piece of farm equipment with the gadgets, it can be hard for farmers to justify the cost.

That was the case about 10 years ago, when Brad Fritel and his father, North Dakota farmers, went shopping for a new seeder. One was capable for data collection - and cost about $10,000 more than the other seeder. A recent college graduate, Fritel watched the results of the new technology and convinced his father to give it a try. 

The additional cost wasn’t just the seeder, but in the equipment to utilize the data the seeder collected.

“He wasn’t completely on board but now I don’t think either of us would ever go back,” Fritel said.

The piece of equipment he values most is a blockage monitor. Before using it, if one of the hoses got blocked, the farmer may not know an entire row didn’t get planted until it started to grow. Now, Fritel knows right away if something isn’t working properly.

“After the first seeding, I would never go back to operating without it,” he said.

As other equipment on the farm has needed to be upgraded, they purchased the data collecting models. He isn’t sure they have made back the money they put into the new technology: he hasn’t tracked that. To him, the real value comes from better use of inputs, saving time on bookkeeping and reducing operator fatigue, which might cause a driver to go go over an area of field a second time.

He may be inputting as much water or seed on the fields, but he is only putting it where it is needed, instead of on the entire surface. It is a more efficient use of his resources.

Right now, they use the collected data only for the farm, but he knows specialty buyers that have customers interested in the data and if a farmers is willing to provide that data, the customer is willing to pay a premium price.

The premium pricing makes the offer tempting.

“It’s hard not to think about it. I’ve already got the equipment. I’ve made the investment already,” Fritel said. “But what are they going to do with it? What exactly are they looking for?”

Farmers are under attack and there are misconceptions about farming. Someone with the information could easily turn it on Fritel’s farm or on the neighboring farmers.

Another problem he is concerned about is how accurate is the data. It is enough to help him on the farm, but if he is selling the data, how accurate is that company going to want the information? Even if the equipment is perfect, the results are only as good as the user.

“If you tell a computer to type a word, it will, even if it’s the wrong word,” Fritel explained.

His concerns aren’t unique. A report released by the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, USFRA, showed other farmers and ranchers had concerns about how their data might be used.

“Many of the farmers interviewed said that often the metrics they were asked to report didn’t really make sense for their particular context, and that many of the requests they received have not considered the farmers’ perspective,” the report states.

Ellie Moss, USFRA, said the common theme from the report was that both sides - the farmers and the food companies - are feeling a pain point. Consumers are asking for more information on where and how food is produced, food companies want to provide that data, and farmers want to know how the data will be used and how it will be communicated to the consumers.

It takes time, energy and resources to process and gather the data as it moves up the supply chain and everyone is interested in a better way, Moss said.

Consumers want the information in a way that makes it easy to understand what risks are involved. Different companies ask similar questions but in different ways.

“Farmers and ranchers have to respond to all of it. If they have five customers, they need to answer 15 surveys,” she said.

This challenge is on top of a farm system that is already stretched then. Farmers want to respond, she said, but they don’t have time.

There are variations in the demand. A shorter supply chain, co-ops, and areas where food safety is more focused, like specialty crops, are all areas where the pressure is slightly less, because it is already in place or because there are few people in the chain to ask the questions, she said.

More cooperation is needed - farmers are frustrated and companies know the current methods aren’t working. Technology is also a benefit, she said, but it doesn’t always work with other types of technology. If farmers could impute the data once, instead of 15 different times, the results would be better.

Industry-wide standards need to be in place as guidelines for the correct and fair use of data, she said. It is not just food companies, but also tech companies collecting information.

“Farmers can’t be sure the data won’t be used against them in the future,” Moss said.

Every farmer should own the data from the farm, said Aaron Ault, farmer and senior entire for Open Ag Technology Center at Perdue.

“No farmer is going to buy in if they don’t own the stuff they’re creating,” he said. “I think that’s important, but I think it’s also important for farmers to realize the reason you have the data is to do something with it.”

Most farmers cannot write the code needed to find the solutions to their problems and need to share the data and their reactions to the programs in order for the electronics and apps to become better. It is a balance between the protecting the data and sharing it.

“It’s important to put the farmers in the driver’s seat, saying ‘I’m ok with that data going to that guy for that purpose,’” Ault said.

Sharing the data, sharing their reactions to the collection of the data, farmers can help engineers create better products.

He realized that it was taking him about one minute per animal to track what medications and treatments the cow received. He decided to make an app and realized he had a new focus. What he really wanted to know was what treatments the calf had the last time it was treated and how well that treatment worked.

He worked for about 20 hours on the app and wrote 1,400 lines of code, but he used 696,000 lines of open source code of other people’s code. It would have taken him two years to write the entire code himself. The other people never considered how their code might apply to agriculture. It takes someone in agriculture to come up with the right questions.

“That’s one of the things the (engineers) need - users. We need people to use the apps and give feedback,” he said. Farmers need to say what worked and what they wanted the app to do.

Farmers do want to use the data and they do have questions.

“I have no idea who is eating my steak, I have no idea how my calves perform at the feedlot, I have no idea what my beef’s grade,” said Meredith Ellis, a Texas cattle rancher.

She said she can get answers to some of her questions, but it might take years to get the results. Then she has to try to determine what the weather was like that year and that day, how was the grass, how were the cattle? The markets?

“It’s very hard to figure out all those factors (about) what I was doing in June of 2017,” she said.

There needs to be a point where everyone can use the data but no one ones it. It would allow for more collaboration and quicker answers to her questions.