Modern farming generates lots of useful data. Who owns it and who benefits from it?

Back in the 1950s when I played card games with my sister and cousins, I always seemed to lose. It stands to reason a six year old couldn’t win all the time. Maybe I was too inexperienced, because I never won a hand of Old Maid until sometime in the early 1960s. But the real reason may have been I didn’t understand the way games are played.

That’s because when they asked me what I had in my hand, I always showed them.

I wasn’t born yesterday. And I remember lessons learned at the hands of those family card sharps who may only have been prepping me for later life. Just the same. I’m not much better at playing games now than I was then.

That’s a common farmer trait not only in games of chance, but data collection too, because big business wants to see my hand.

It could be a real game changer.

Back in the old days, I really wanted to believe that the bigger kids wouldn’t take my chips and that the people who sold me stuff were my friends. We were family, after all. That’s the way it is in farming, because we’re taught to believe that when it comes to agriculture, we’re all in this together. But the fact of the matter is that in the food chain that is agriculture, farmers are the main course.

People don’t eat technology, but technological gains can yield a whole new crop of profits for corporations when they gain a new trademark or patent. It’s a little like the way ranchers brand their cattle with a hot iron, so no one can steal them.

But back in the days of the open range, a steer belonged to whoever branded it first.

That’s a little the way data is today.

Welcome to the Wild West of agriculture.


In the early days of agricultural technology, one of the biggest questions was “who owns my data?”  That was when combines first started measuring and recording yields on the go. Since then, data collection and transmission has become even more pervasive, and invasive, as everyone from implement manufacturers to seed and pesticide companies want, to know how their products are used and how they function on the farm. Once they get that knowledge, it becomes their property, along with any profits it can generate through product improvement or plain old higher revenues.

Maybe that’s why a large group of stakeholders in farm data have joined together to help clarify for farmers what they stand to gain or lose in data collection.

There are two sides to data in agriculture few consumers ever see. It’s a little like the breath mint that’s two mints in one, or chewing gum that lets you double your fun. In the one hand, we have data about patented seeds or copyrighted software in farm equipment that not only controls the tractor but might keep track of where farmers went and what they did. Such tracking allows product improvement, but it also could allow manufacturers to extract a little extra in fees and prices when they identify what farmers need bad enough to pay for.

In plants it’s about the same. Farmers pay patent fees to gain the right to plant genetically engineered plant varieties. Data sharing on the results of planting those seeds could result in better yields or higher quality crops, but it could also allow seed companies to create a second tier of improved but higher priced seeds they could charge farmers more for.

The current trend in agriculture is for farmers to own less of what they possess. With fewer farmers in America, land is increasingly in the hands of outside investors. Farmers rely on those folks to rent them the land they need to grow crops. And livestock markets once openly traded on a daily basis are now controlled by packers and integrators. Farmers of my father’s generation never worried about selling their livestock or poultry, because market terminals in places like Omaha or Kansas City traded openly almost every day. Today if farmers don’t have a contract to produce those animals, they may not be able to sell them. And with seeds for things like soybeans for instance, over 90% of what farmers plant is genetically modified and protected to the benefit of corporations like Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, or Syngenta. Farmers must pay not only for the seeds but the patented genes inside.

In part at least, those genes were created through the collection of farm data.

One example of a precision agriculture system.
One example of a precision agriculture system.

Most recently it has come to light that modern farm equipment, which relies heavily on computerized operation, is not the property of farmers who thought they bought the whole enchilada. The farmer still pays for the machine, but corporations retain ownership of the software that makes that equipment operate.

If farmers try to change the operation of their equipment by accessing copyrighted software inside, they’re breaking the law.

Small wonder all these corporations want access to farmers’ data, because it is a treasure trove of numbers that could allow corporations in seed, feed, food, and farm equipment to target markets with specially created products for markets they covet. In almost all those cases, it is the farmers who generated that data in the first place who will be expected to pay for it.

There is no other business in America more subjected to data leaks than farming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly issues reports about farms, what they’re doing, what they did, what they plan to do, crop yields, indebtedness, prices, inventories … the list is endless. By comparison what consequences would there be if the Department of Commerce published car inventories on dealer lots, their costs, locations, likely number of buyers on a given day, and gave estimates of what cars would be worth a year from now or even five years from now?

Would Congress respond by setting a floor price for cars?

That’s the type of second guessing farmers live with all the time. The only secrets we are allowed to have are the ones we keep secret. That’s getting harder to do, because there are even laws requiring us to tell the government what we’ve been up to.

We’re patriotic guys and gals. Most farmers see government as our friend. But in the game of real life, too many times, government is on the other side of the table.

Part of the newest farm program for grain and oilseed farmers, something called ARC, relies on annual yield reporting by farmers in order to compute total per acre revenues on their farms. If numbers come in low enough in individual counties, then farmers who grew those crops are eligible for makeup payments to replace lost income when yields and prices fail to keep up. But ARC payments are lagging in places where they are deserved because farmers have become so leery of government intrusion and data sharing, they’re keeping yield reports to themselves and not answering government questionnaires.

Modern agriculture is all encompassing. It covers all of food production from seed and seed stock to table-ready produce. What they don’t understand is that agriculture isn’t just farmers. It’s everyone and everything in a corporate extension ladder where farmers are on the bottom rung.

Farming is a basic business. Place the seed in the furrow and, God (and corporate patent holders) willing, it will grow. But through government/corporate partnerships and data sharing, another parable, the one about what is rendered unto God and what is rendered unto Caesar, is determining the costs and profits in our food supply and who is entitled to them.

That’s why lately, more and more farmers like me don’t want to show their cards to anyone.

Not even our friends.

Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter from Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.

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