The “Farm Data” Economy Meets “Surveillance Capitalism”

I have often said if you dropped that 20 something farm kid from 35 years ago, who started writing this column, he wouldn’t recognize the farming landscape. Interest rates at 0.25% you say. Man, that head shake would be eternal, just like looking at my no-till drill or using guidance to navigate through my field. Even the commodity markets would look different. Did somebody say cryptocurrency? Who would ever imagine the corn yields where they are today. As I’ve mentioned in these pages before, try to put yourself out in time 35 years on the farm. Will you recognize where you’ll be?

For some of us, that’s probably the greatest challenge, as our time is growing more precious. Farming is not homogeneous. Farmers are not homogeneous. In other words, our different realities have much to do with the rapid advance of change, but it always depends on scale and market structure. The dairy farm in rural Quebec with 50 cows, runs in a different world than the dairy farm in Indiana with 30,000 cows. How will things look on my farm of 865 acres versus the farms in western Canada of 8650 acres or the farms in Russia of 100,000 hectares?

Obviously, in 35 years, things will be different in so many ways. Along the way, there will be so many changing technologies thrown in the weeds or the back of the bush, that will never be heard from again. However, as it is, with a more mature internet and changing mobile computer technology, the thirst for data from our farms has grown exponentially. Someday with the advent of 5G, it might be as ubiquitous as oxygen.

As you know, I always measure this with an agricultural economic lens. You know that drill, so some of this technology on my own farm will have to pencil out. However, I had a conservation the other day with a friend of mine who farms about 14,000 acres of corn and soybean in SW Kansas. We go back to the early days of social media, when I tried to help him calibrate a new White planter over Twitter. Little did I know it would lead to a long relationship with a guy I consider a farm machinery genius. At the time he was always concerned about the growth and scope of the collection of farm data on the farm. Through the years, I’ve always heard his southern twangy voice in the back of my mind with I write about new agricultural technology, which specifically collects data for sale.

Our conversation covered a lot of topics, but he told me how he works with the farm data which is collected. It is really amazing when you think about it. There is almost everything you can measure out there if you are willing to put the technology together. For instance, he sits in front of several computer screens analysing and sending out fertility and chemical prescriptions for the tractor drivers. He says, driving the tractors is almost all gone. It’s almost automatous now, steering all done for the drivers, even on the headlands. He sent me a screen shot where smart seed firmers collect soil temperature, CEC, singulation, organic matter, furrow moisture, it goes on and on. With several years of data collection in the cloud, it’s a great resource to help his management.

However, that is the not the end of the story. His stance about farm data from earlier in his career still holds, even though he’s found farm data collection incredibly dynamic. With the plethora of “farm data” companies in the market these days, his concern is it could be used for nefarious reasons. Privacy could be compromised and what if “foreign actors” get a hold of it. Needless to say, my friend is legit. He’s a power user of “farm data” and appreciates it for what it is. However, there is that other part that bothers him.

He actually drove the combine this past year which set the world record for corn bushels harvested in one day. Hopefully there was no blip in the internet cloud, as it would have shut things down abruptly. Needless to say, he could drive a combine in his sleep.

Talking to him helped me with the whole new scope of “farm data.” However, nothing is ever do good it can’t be improved. It makes you wonder about what could be called “surveillance capitalism”, or the commodification of personal data. Consider Google, Facebook and all the other companies known and unknown that collect data on you. In 35 years from now will there be a whole new “surveillance capitalism”?

It’s been said that farm machinery manufacturers build it because farmers want it. Farmers often say they buy it because farm manufacturers build it. There is so much in between. As farmers our greatest challenge is to do the right thing. Yes, it’s always about the agricultural economics. That said, the “farm data” economy is part of it. Whether you like it or not, it’s becoming a default. There surely will be regulation on the horizon. However, that horizon seems to be getting farther away, bit by bit, every day.