Big Data : challenges and potential

by Nicolas Mesly

Precision farming is the precursor of an explosion of data generated by sensors installed on tractors, seeders, combines, and robot milkers, in the soil or from the air. 

Already, big players such as Monsanto, John Deere, and DuPont Pioneer, in exchange for farmers’ data, are investing in the area of consulting services. But who is the owner of the data generated on the farm?  Are cooperatives prepared for Big Data?

Predictions by Lowell Catlett, Big Data guru

The Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University provides some background on the Big Data revolution.

Coopérateur How is Big Data going to change the agricultural world?

Lowell Catlett It’s going to catapult us into a whole new, unprecedented level of management for health and marketing for herds and crops.

What is the relation between the farming operation and Big Data?

Soon, a miniature sensor may be incorporated into each corn seed so the growth of the plant can be followed in real time. Every farm is going to produce a phenomenal amount of data! The data sent by each farming operation will have value to be digested in useful ways.

For the producer?

Absolutely. Big Data will provide the producer with the necessary information to make crucial economic decisions and increase the farm’s productivity.

Sensitive topic: who does the data belong to?

To those who generate it. But the majority of people believe that the information that producers collect about agronomic yields from their harvest belong to them.

Will the information generated by a farming operation have any financial value?

Of course! For example, John Deere may wish to purchase my information in order to aggregate  it and develop a better line of tractors or combines.

Is Big Data marking the end of reports from USDA or Statistics Canada for the commodities market?

Yes. Information on the price of commodities is coming more and more from the private sector. 

Another worry producers have is the security of data

Businesses that will be able to protect your data and your identity are going to make a crazy amount of money.

The French cooperative group InVivo launches into Big Data

Big Data is at the heart of a strategy at the agricultural cooperative group InVivo, whose goal is to become the European champion of Big Data by merging the data of its 223 cooperative members (representing 300,000 farmers). The group plans to invest between $14 and $42 million (CDN) in researching programs and applications over the next three to five years.

The downside to Big Data

“Big Data seems to be like pea soup, meaning that it’s difficult to isolate useful information,” warns Nicolas Tremblay, scientific researcher at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Center in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

“The greatest challenge is going to consist of just digesting Big Data to make it useful for the farmer,” adds the researcher. According to Tremblay, it is relatively easy to calculate the optimal rate of fuel consumption for a tractor by taking into account the speed, weight of the equipment being pulled, and type of soil. But it is different when the optimal nitrogen dosage needs to be applied, for example, at the right time and in the right place.

According to the researcher, producers should not be dazzled by the techno-gadgets introduced on the market with the arrival of precision farming. “It is not to determine what the best sensor of chlorophyll is; it’s being able to put your finger on the real problem.” The risk, he believes, is in making mistakes in the ensuing recommendations, for example applying a double dose of nitrogen in one part of a field when it’s the other part that should be getting it.  

A Texan cooperative – the chosen agent for managing Big Data

“The data industry is in full swing and we believe that producers need to have and control their own data because it has value, particularly in the agriculture sector,” Dewey Hukill, Chairman of the Board of Directors for Grower Information Services Cooperatives (GiSC), explains over the phone. Created in 2012, GiSC’s objective is to serve as a one-stop shop to collect, store, communicate and sell producers’ data.

GiSC developed a new platform, AgProX, to manage its members’ data. This platform allows data to be sorted in a private cloud system, sort of like a virtual safe where “only the producer is authorized to give the right of access to a third-party for his or her data, for example to his or her crop insurance agent or a salesperson,” clarifies Billy Tiller, director of development at GiSC.

Among the fears raised by the American Farm Bureau Federation, is data hacking from environmental groups unsympathetic to farmers. Or the risk of losing control of the operation due to theft by competitors, data on my farm’s costs of production, my neighbours’ farms or those in the region, would give thieves a competitive advantage. “The security of our members’ data is our priority,” says Billy Tiller.

Monsanto, John Deere and company want your property

Thanks to Big Data, the agri-business giants are investing in the area of consulting services. Monsanto was the first. By purchasing the precision farming equipment dealer, Precision Planting, in 2012, and then Climate Corporation, a business specialized in collecting and analyzing climate data, in 2013, for a price of nearly $1-billion (US), the American Goliath is looking far ahead. By using the data provided by producers regarding their land, crops and machinery, and by combining them with the high-level information on temperature and climate, Monsanto can send seeding recommendations or nitrogen application recommendations or fungicide recommendations in real time and with unparalleled precision.

Some 12 million hectares (30 million acres) have been registered for the Climate Basic program service offer. Yet the organization is targeting an area of 20 million hectares in 2015, which represents nearly a third of the area planted to corn and soybeans in the United States. Thanks to the marriage of technology, biology and information, Monsanto anticipates a potential market of $20-billion (US).

La Coop fédérée makes the digital shift

“The time when we had to go and see producers to give them information is over. Today, we need to analyze information to give them an added-value in order to help them to be more competitive,” explains Sébastien Léveillé, Vice-president, Agribusiness, at La Coop fédérée. The phenomenal sources of information generated by the industry, cooperatives and farms are going to redefine La Coop Network of tomorrow. And enterprises that do not follow the digital shift are going to suffer,” explains Louis Duchesne, Vice-president and General Manager of the Quebec offices for Cossette.

Digital technology encourages enterprises to develop on-farm management applications. In pork production, for example, inserting a chip into piglets allows the producer to know if the animal has a fever and therefore can check to see if a disease is present in the herd. The day is not so far off when a producer will be able to resort to colonies of drone-bees to fertilize plants at flowering time.

The analyses coming out of Big Data will allow enterprises to target customers’ needs and even anticipate their needs. Will the use of this data, however, raise ethical questions?


Nicolas Mesly's picture

Nicolas is a freelance reporter photographer for the Coopérateur. Globetrotter, his specialty is to investigate major agrifood and ecological issues. Agricultural economist by profession, he began his career in agricultural journalism before becoming press attaché and special assistant to the Minister of Agriculture Canada. Nicolas returned to journalism after having been Commercial Secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Venezuela.