An Airbnb For Farmland Hits A Snag, As Farmers Raise Data Privacy Concerns : The Salt The Internet startup Tillable wants to match farmers with farmland available for rent. The problem? Farmers already on that land fear their farm data is being used against them.

An Airbnb For Farmland Hits A Snag, As Farmers Raise Data Privacy Concerns

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An Internet startup company is trying to be a kind of Airbnb for farmland, but the company hit a snag recently, an uproar on social media - outrage on farmer Twitter. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Parker Smith grows corn and soybeans on land near Champaign, Ill., together with his father and uncle. But they don't own most of that land.

PARKER SMITH: About 75% of what we farm is rented ground.

CHARLES: Across the Midwest, half of all farmland is owned by landlords who live somewhere else, and farmers compete to rent that land.

SMITH: There's only so much ground, and most of the farmers out there want more. So obviously, it's - it gets pretty competitive and stuff.

CHARLES: These farmer-landowner relationships can last for decades. They sometimes feel personal. So Smith was pretty upset when he heard this past winter about a company that was sending letters to his landlords offering cash upfront to rent that land. The letters came from a company called Tillable, based in Chicago, backed by venture capital. I called them up.

CORBETT KULL: My name is Corbett Kull. I'm CEO of Tillable.

CHARLES: So how many offers like this do you make?

KULL: Several thousand.

CHARLES: How many people took you up on it?

KULL: A whole lot (laughter).

CHARLES: Tillable will take that land and list it on its site as available to rent. It'll take bids from farmers and then sublet it. The rental market for farmland is huge - $32 billion a year. And Kull thinks Tillable could be farmland's Airbnb or Zillow.

KULL: This is one of the beauties of digital marketplaces, where you can bring two parties together that might otherwise never meet.

CHARLES: Those letters to landowners, though, got a lot of farmers very angry for several reasons. Here's Parker Smith, the farmer in Illinois.

SMITH: They're reaching out to our landlords that we have relationships with to sort of go behind the farmer's back.

CHARLES: And break up that relationship. Now, this kind of thing does happen among farmers competing for land, but there was a new factor in this case - an unproven, very Internet-era suspicion about data and privacy. You see, Parker Smith, like a lot of farmers, uses equipment that automatically collects all kinds of data about his farm, like how much grain he harvests from each small square of each field. He pays a company called The Climate Corporation to manage that data, help him understand it.

Well, last fall, Tillable and the Climate Corporation announced a partnership, which makes Smith wonder - did Tillable target his land because it got access to data about how productive and profitable it is?

SMITH: They would know yields. They'd be able to roughly figure how much money a guy is making.

CHARLES: Just over a week ago, Tillable - the company that's trying to use the Internet to disrupt farming - was itself disrupted, by farmers on the Internet. They started raising suspicions on Twitter about the Tillable-Climate Corporation partnership. They accused the two companies of trafficking in farmer data, which Corbett Kull denies.

KULL: They were absolutely false in this case. We had never accessed the data from Climate.

CHARLES: But the storm on social media forced The Climate Corporation and Tillable to announce they were canceling their partnership. Tillable says this is not a major blow to its business plans, but the controversy could have one lasting effect. Parker Smith says he never worried about his farm data before - who gets to see it. Now, he says, he and a lot of other farmers probably will.

Dan Charles, NPR News.


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