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Blockchain technology concept, from iStock.

EXCLUSIVE: Farmobile patents blockchain tech to protect and manage growers’ data

March 3, 2020

Data privacy in agriculture has been an ongoing discussion or in some cases a heated debate. For farmers and agribusinesses, aggregating and analyzing crop production data can help improve crop yields and increase efficiencies in the process. Other stakeholders in the food space are also finding creative ways to harness data, such as for sustainability goals. Last year, Tyson Foods partnered with non-profit Environmental Defense Fund to develop a set of initiatives to help Tyson achieve its GHG reduction goals by using Farmers Business Network and MyFarms, two ag data platforms. 

For every potential benefit, however, is an equally worthy grievance about the potential downfalls of sharing ag data. It doesn’t take long to come up with a laundry list of reasons that growers may not want to farm in a world where anyone anywhere can get ahold of their production data. Farmland rental data platform Tillable recently found itself in hot water when farmers began expressing concerns and even anger over the assumption that Tillable was using data from Climate Corp’s FieldView platform to send out unsolicited lease offer letters based on land value estimates. While both parties said that no data had been shared between the platforms, nor would it be without farmer consent, Climate ultimately ended its partnership with Tillable.

We’ve seen efforts to address these data privacy concerns, mainly starting with the premise that farmers are the default owners of their data like the Ag Data Transparent certification. But according to Farmobile CEO Jason Tatge, there is ample room for more.

“I think the biggest companies tried to ignore this whole data privacy thing for a long time hoping it would go away and they’d figure out how to make it not matter anymore, but recently it’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal,” Farmobile CEO Jason Tatge tells AFN

Farmobile is an ag data collection and software service that offers farmers a neutral place to store their data. Farmobile produces a small in-cab unit for farm equipment called a PUC that wirelessly shares machine and agronomic data gathered in the field in real-time. It provides clear terms to farmer-users about who can access, edit, upload, and download the data and allows them to designate “Trusted Advisors.”

It also offers users a chance to participate in what it describes as the Farm Data Marketplace through its DataStore. This service collects offers from companies that want to purchase farmer data and brings it back to them. If farmers accept, they will get paid for their data with Farmobile taking a cut. 

The value to data buyers is in the timeliness and completeness of the data available on the DataStore. Publicly-available data are generally weeks-to-months old when they become available and largely derive from surveys making it susceptible to inaccuracies, according to Tatge. The DataStore also provides more granularity when it comes to exactly what farmers are planting, providing better predictions of yield, health, and commodity prices.

Now, AFN can reveal that the Kansas-based company recently received a patent for the blockchain technology it’s developed to help farmers keep track of who’s accessed their data and when. The patented tech records when a company expresses interest in purchasing a grower’s data, whether the grower accepts or declines the offer to purchase the data, and any time that someone accesses data sets in the farmer’s account.

“Think of it like a virtual financial ledger that has a series of rules around how people use it,” company CTO Chris Schibi adds. “In our case, a grower logs in to the DataStore and goes to a screen that shows all the orders he or she has had to view his or her harvest data. By clicking another button, he or she can see which orders he or she approved and disapproved and where the data went, such as an ag retailer or a seed company.”

In lieu of a traditional legacy system where an attacker only has to breach one central location to obtain data, blockchain provides Farmobile users with a way to add additional protection and security around their data.

“I don’t think there are other systems out there right now where you can log on and find out who has had access to your data in the last 24 hours. That’s the problem that we are really out here to solve. To store data in a way that growers feel comfortable with and to earn the opportunity to store those data for them,” Tatge adds.

What currently happens, according to him, is that a farmer will share his or her data onto someone’s system like an agronomist’s prescription software, where the data is reformatted and altered. It’s often shared into yet another system and undergoes additional alterations. Tatge has dubbed this the photoshopping effect.

“Farmobile’s blockchain solution allows farmers to keep their data far more secure, more traceable, and more controllable because they can see exactly who has access at any given time; any changes would have to be approved by everyone in the chain. The Photoshop effect doesn’t happen anymore.”

Blockchain in food traceability

Blockchain has been gaining momentum in the food traceability space by allowing companies to keep tabs on the physical food products they source from the farm level to the shelf. Alibaba and Bayer teamed up to create a blockchain-based ag tracking system, GrainChain uses it to link Honduras’ disjoined coffee industry, and the State of Wyoming is using it to try and get premium prices for ranchers producing sustainably-raised beef. 

For a non-physical commodity that can be sent and resent an endless number of times like data, however, the need for accurate tracking and tracing skyrockets.

“It’s the same concept, except instead of an avocado that goes one place and gets consumed, this digital asset goes to 20 places and the ability to understand where it’s gone adds a lot of trust,” Tatge explains. “Trust is the opposite of suspicion and this is a way to remove suspicion for farmers around data.”

Today, roughly one-third of Farmobile’s subscribers participate in the DataStore. When it comes to the other two-thirds, Tatge is ready to serve them when they decide to start dipping their toes in the data monetization waters. Although growers may be staying on the sidelines for now, Tatge is seeing subscriptions for Farmobile’s data storage services skyrocketing.

“We’ve had 50% more subscriptions in the last 30 days,” he explains. “The ability to have a neutral location for data was a big deal, went away, but now we are seeing it come back in a really big way from the smallest to the biggest companies wanting the ability to collect data independently of an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) or genetics company. If you are going to attempt to do some outcome-based pricing [without signing up to one of the ag major’s digital platforms] — and a lot of these are being floated around right now — it’s incumbent on you to have data to prove performance from planting to application to harvest”

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