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Monday, May 12, 2014

Next Revolution In Agriculture May Center On Big Data

A farmer uses Monsanto's FieldScripts program to plant his field. (Monsanto)

A farmer uses Monsanto’s FieldScripts program to plant his field.
(Monsanto)

The next revolution in agriculture could center around big data, also called precision farming.

The idea is that all the information about what goes into and comes out of fields could help growers make better decisions.

Agribusiness companies such as Monsanto and DuPont are introducing new services to do just that. But questions remain over whether it’s a smart move for farmers to share information with agribusiness.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports.

Reporter

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And a couple of stories we're following: the man known as the poorest president in the world is meeting with President Obama today. Uruguay's Jose Mujica donates most of his salary to charity, drives a beat up old Volkswagen Bug and refuses to wear a tie, even to the White House where today President Obama praised him and Uruguay for a strong human rights record, and said he hopes to strengthen commercial ties. Uruguay was recently in the headlines for becoming the first country in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Another story we're watching: A second case of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, has been confirmed in the U.S. The first case was diagnosed earlier this month, a man who traveled from Saudi Arabia. The virus has made hundreds of people sick in the Middle East.

To Indiana: People with MERS experience of flu-like fever and cough that can lead to pneumonia, and death for a third of the people come down with it. Again: A second case found in the U.S.

And let's look now at a potential revolution in agriculture. Some call it Big Data, others Precision Farming. But the idea is that all the information about what goes in and comes out of fields could help growers make better decisions. Agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto and DuPont, are introducing new services. But there are questions including should farmers share information with agribusiness.

From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman reports.

MARIA ALTMAN, BYLINE: In his home near Belleville, Illinois, farmer Greg Guenther points to the cornfield right outside his office window, then to a colorful map on his desktop computer.

GREG GUENTHER: And look how inconsistent it is across in the field.

ALTMAN: Pockets of green squares and show where they yield was good last year, yellow where was it was less so. And Guenther points to an area that's red.

GUENTHER: You can see where this is kind of lower yielding. That was a wet spot here.

ALTMAN: This technology is nothing new. Guenther has had the same GPS unit in his harvest combine reading yields since 1986. Each year, he prints out the color maps and takes them to his crop specialist who recommends what to plant in the spring. But he's not ready for what's coming next: Sharing that information with an entire corporation.

GUENTHER: The biggest issue for me is the privacy issue. Once it's off my computer who knows who's going to get that data?

ALTMAN: He's referring to new Cloud-based services rolled out by Monsanto and DuPont this spring that can gather information directly from growers tractors at every step, from planting to harvest. The data are then accessible to both the farmers and the companies. Monsanto and DuPont, along with John Deere, say they can take that information and give valuable tips to farmers to push up their yields.

ANTHONY OSBORNE: You'll hear farmers talk about being up to their ears in data.

ALTMAN: That's Anthony Osborne, a vice president of Marketing at Monsanto.

OSBORNE: We think our business is helping the grower take that mass of data, consolidate it in a meaningful way that they can put their hands around it.

ALTMAN: For instance, by analyzing yield and soil information, Monsanto can help farmers choose the best corn hybrids to plant, and pinpoint areas as small as a 30 foot square where more or less should be planted. Monsanto launched that program called FieldsScripts in four Midwestern states this year. But Osborne says to get the best prescription farmers have to be willing to share information.

OSBORNE: The more data the farmer is willing to provide, the more insights and analytics we can provide.

ALTMAN: Osborne says the company understands farmers' privacy concerns and will not share data with third parties, adding that farmers own their information and can delete it at any time.

But the American Farm Bureau Federation says questions remain over protecting individual farmer's information, as well as all that crop data as a whole. Mary Kay Thatcher, the Farm Bureau's senior director of Congressional Relations, says the company getting yield numbers off a thousand combines in Iowa in real time...

MARY KAY THATCHER: They're going to have a jump on the marketplace. So if they wanted to manipulate the market they could. Now, of course, every company tells you they have no intention of doing that. But that's one of the things we're looking into. Are there enough safeguards out there to ensure that that can't happen?

ALTMAN: The Farm Bureau met last month with Monsanto, DuPont, and other agribusiness companies to discuss that and other issues. Thatcher says the goal is to get a set of standards around the Big Data within a year, before the services are widely adopted.

But some growers are already signed up. On his family farm outside Edwardsville, Illinois, Jeff Heepke beta tested Monsanto's FieldsScripts last summer.

JEFF HEEPKE: We're getting down to two and a half acre management zones, and really keying in on getting the best out of every acre.

ALTMAN: This year, Heepke, who farms with his dad and two brothers, will pay $10 an acre for the service. He says pushing yields up far outweighs possible worries about sharing their data.

For HERE AND NOW, I'm Maria Altman in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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