The Data Farm. An investigation of the implications of collecting data on farm
Data driven technologies have revolutionised every industry in which they’ve been widely adopted. Buying a book or some music, organising a holiday and even trading shares is a vastly different experience now to what it was 10-20 years ago. The information revolution is also making its way into agriculture. A new revolution requires new ways of thinking and new approaches to some old problems in order to prosper as a farmer on a data-driven farm. What new approaches, what new ways of thinking do those of us on agricultures front line need in order to adapt our mechanised industrial agriculture into the new reality of the information age?
The rise of a myriad of cheap sensors is combining with the GPS and the promise of near ubiquitous internet access to allow farmers to ask questions about their farms that haven’t been feasible to ask in the past. Rather than treat their farms and soils as homogenous farmers can become flexible and adaptable to the natural variations that exist in their environments. Never before have farmers had tools to measure, quantify and respond to the natural variability that exists on their farms like they do in 2016.
Collecting data on farm has transformed from an expensive and laborious process that few farmers could be bothered with, to one that is relatively cheap and increasingly easy. Rather than being a one-off process, collecting, analysing and continually reviewing data can become a system for ongoing improvement on a farm.
Once accurate data is being collected at the farm level, such data can be aggregated and compared across different businesses, regions, and countries. Farmers can use this aggregated data to analyse farm business performance. The promise of this is the potential for real-time business benchmarking.
Third parties, including well known agribusiness multinationals are becoming interested in farm data at this aggregated stage, because it gives insights into how farmers are using various products. This leads to a strange phenomenon where a company’s clients are also doing their product research.
There are many people who believe there is much value to be extracted from this data as evidenced by the venture capital flowing into new companies attempting to make use of it. This may be concerning to farmers who may not understand the motivations behind a company wanting to access farmer data.
There are other longer term implications of data technology in agriculture. Fears about commodity market manipulation may be overstated but concerns about control of data access are valid. Like all technologies there are potential benefits to farmers as well. More open supply chain data may allow for cheaper inputs and potentially even a new revenue stream for some farmers. It will certainly lead to better genetics and machines for farmers to use.
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