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Big Data Companies Agree: Farmers Should Own Their Information

A global positioning receiver on the top of a combine harvester at a farm in Warwick, Md., in June. The equipment uses sensors and computers to help drive the combine along the route where the crops were planted, judge the composition of a crop and generate crop yield reports. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

A global positioning receiver on the top of a combine harvester at a farm in Warwick, Md., in June. The equipment uses sensors and computers to help drive the combine along the route where the crops were planted, judge the composition of a crop and generate crop yield reports.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the biggest names in American agriculture, ranging from farmers' organizations to private companies like Monsanto and DuPont, have agreed on principles governing the use of data collected from farms.

That data increasingly drives farm operations. Tractors and combines carry sensors that record — and upload to the data "cloud" — what happens on each spot of a farmer's field, from how much fertilizer and seed it received to how much grain it produced to what type of soil is found there. That data, once analyzed, guides decisions about what seeds a farmer will plant.

Top agribusiness companies, including Monsanto, DuPont, John Deere and Dow, have moved into the information business, offering to help farmers collect that data and analyze it — for a price.

But some farmers are starting to worry about how that data will be used; whether, for instance, details of their operations will be open for all to see. Others wonder how the data companies will exploit their new-found ability to monitor what's happening on vast tracts of farmland.

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Those concerns led to the new "Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data," which were released this week. The document has been endorsed by six top companies, including the Climate Corporation, which is owned by Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and DuPont. Big farm organizations also signed on: the Soybean Association, the National Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers Union.

The signers agreed that farmers own the data from their own farms, and have the right to control who gets access to that data. Farmers, for instance, can prevent their data from being shared with other businesses or included in larger data collections.

Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, says that negotiations over this document were sometimes contentious, but helped data companies better understand farmers' concerns.

She also says that her organization will continue to work on this issue. It's planning to develop a "transparency evaluation tool" that will help farmers evaluate whether the contracts that they sign really do safeguard their interests. "Sometimes, the marketing people write the glossy principles, but the lawyers write the contracts," Thatcher says.

The document prohibits companies from using the information that they collect, such as data from an ongoing harvest, to speculate in commodity markets. "That was one of the easiest issues to resolve," says Thatcher. The companies, she says, have concluded that such activities would be illegal.