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Farmobile Addresses Data Privacy Concerns with Transparency Contracts for Farmers

March 17, 2016

Farmobile, an ag data collection and software service, is now offering farmers legal agreements that govern the ownership and control of their agronomic data.

Developed in response to farmer feedback and concerns about the risks associated with sharing farm data, the agreements seek to simplify the relationship between a farmer and an Agricultural Technology Provider (ATP). This includes any company that uses a farmer’s data to provide decision support, field mapping, prescriptions, or other similar services.

As big data becomes more common in farming, many farmers have expressed concerns about the data ownership rights involved. Once a farmer shares his or her data with a third party, he or she sometimes has little control over what happens to that data next. The vendor may sell the data to a marketing group or use the data for other purposes unrelated to servicing the farmer. Many farmers who use decision support services have no clue who has their data or what is being done with it.

The legal agreements include clear terms about who can access, edit, upload, and download the data. Farmers can choose to share access with so-called “Trusted Advisors,” like seed dealers, agronomists, employees, and business partners.

The agreements also allow the farmer to participate in Farmobile’s “Farm Data Marketplace.” Through this service, Farmobile collects offers from companies that want to use the farmer’s data and brings it back to them. If the farmers want to accept the offer, the agreements ensure that the farmers will receive payment for use of their data. Farmobile and the farmer split the payment down the middle.

The annual fee for leasing the Farmobile hardware and software is $1,250, which may pay for itself depending on the farmer’s participation in the Farm Data Marketplace.

“We are creating this new commodity of data privacy rights around the notion that the growers should have an ownership right to what they are doing,” Jason Tatge, Farmobile founder and CEO tells AgFunderNews.

Tatge compares the current agricultural data market to the music industry before Napster hit the scene. “If an author writes a book or a musician makes music, at the end their finished product gives them the option to receive value for it if they choose,” he explains. “A farmer is writing chapters of a book every time he or she passes over the land with their equipment.”

The regulations and laws applicable to music licensing did not keep up with the technological developments in the music market, Tatge says. He believes the existing agriculture big data market is undergoing the same strain.

“A lot of data is flying around different places—no one knows what’s being collected. Then you have something like iTunes that’s figured out a way to standardize the music business and make it so much easier for the consumer,” he explains. “Buying something on iTunes and downloading it to an iPod is very easy.”

In the existing big data market, many companies are making big efforts to acquire software, hardware, and satellite capabilities. Tatge sees this as slightly misdirected. According to him, the companies should instead take that money and pay farmers to collect the data.

In developing the agreements, Farmobile worked with the Farm Bureau Federation. Last year, the Farm Bureau led a coalition of ATPs and farm groups to develop the Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data. This document outlines a number of policies to guide ATPs and farmers in creating clear legal relationships about farm data. The document underscores education, ownership, access, control, and transparency among other rubrics.

“To the best of my knowledge, Farmobile is the only company that offers farmers a way to receive value for their data,” a spokeswoman for the Farm Bureau told AgFunderNews. “Some of my members believe the data provides them sufficient value by reducing input costs, etc. But the majority believe that if companies are benefitting from the use of their data, farmers too should benefit.”

Tatge echoes this sentiment, noting that ATPs may take the position that they should not be charged for data usage because they provide farmers value via prescriptions, yields maps, and decision support. He thinks this approach leads to data becoming siloed, especially when farmers want to switch service providers or to test different programs. By restructuring the existing agriculture big data market around a neutral party that focuses solely on housing the data, it allows more free market competition, he says. Farmers can test different programs with the same set of data and get a better sense of each company’s service.

According to the Farm Bureau spokeswoman, “Jason’s model allows farmers to do exactly that. Farmobile’s agreements are currently under review with the Farm Bureau’s Transparency Evaluator, which will assess whether the agreement comports with the Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data.” Tatge is one of the 37 signatories to the document and was a member of the group that developed the role of the Transparency Evaluator.

So how would Farmobile’s “iTunes for farm data” and Farm Data Marketplace actually work?

“A genetics company will come to us and say, ‘I want to know the planting dates, varieties, population, and harvest information for this crop,’” Tatge explains. “They could quote us something around three dollars an acre and then the farmers can choose whether to give the genetics company access to their data and get part of that cash in return.”

But not all farmers are concerned about sharing their data, instead focusing on the potential gains.

“There seems to be a concern among farmers over how an input company would use their data,” a farmer from the Southeast, who chose to remain anonymous tells AgFunderNews. “They are concerned the middleman is going to use their data to increase their margins at the expense of the farmer’s margins. As long as there are multiple input suppliers and no collusion, I don’t think this will ever happen.”

For the Southeastern farmer, allowing the free flow of data may carry more benefits than disadvantages.

“The most likely scenario is that this data is actually used to improve seed genetics or cropping systems, which would benefit everyone I think,” he explains. “I guess I’m just not against a corporation trying to profit if they improve their products and essentially increase my profits as well.”

However, he still sees a clear market for Farmobile’s agreements and knows more than a few farmers who would like to create a co-op type structure for ag data management.

“With an option like this, where Farmobile is positioned as being on the farmer’s side, I think they’ll do quite well,” he added.

What do you think? Is data privacy a real concern and is Farmobile’s approach the right course of action? Get in touch [email protected]

Image: R. Hamilton Smith/AgStock Images/Corbis

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