MILWAUKEE — As Wisconsin farmers plant crops this spring, perched in the cabs of big tractors rolling through their fields, the words “capturing data” probably wouldn’t be used to describe the bucolic scene.
Yet increasingly, that is what’s happening as farmers monitor in real time the planting and harvesting of their crops — capturing data that is analyzed for the purpose of boosting production and profits.
Modern agriculture, like other industries, is plugged into the world of big data. Moreover, some farmers are capitalizing on the information gleaned from their fields by selling it to agribusinesses such as seed and chemical companies.
“That’s probably the main reason we are on board with this, to try and figure out how to market our data,” said Lee Bushman, who plants and harvests about 6,000 acres of crops for farmers in Buffalo County near the Minnesota border.
That’s where the Farmobile Data Store enters the picture. The Overland Park, Kan., firm collects a farmer’s electronic field records and markets the data to agribusinesses — splitting the revenue evenly with the farmer.
“Our business is built on the conviction that the data farmers generate is inherently valuable,” said Jason Tatge, Farmobile’s founder and chief executive.
How valuable are electronic field records that include information such as planting dates, the number of seeds planted per acre and when a crop is ready for harvest?
It depends on how much a buyer, such as a seed company, is willing to pay. However, the data could put a few thousand extra dollars into a farmer’s pocket, in addition to being a crop management tool.
“We believe it will be a significant revenue stream,” Tatge said.
Getting paid for data that’s captured by planting and harvesting equipment anyway is a worthwhile goal, Bushman said.
The Farmobile system uses a small device, called a passive uplink connection, that gathers planting and harvesting data from field machinery in real time.
Data can include seeding rates, crop yields and other variables.
The device, which a farmer leases for $1,250 a year, can be installed on a variety of equipment in five minutes, according to Tatge.
It’s like a Fit Bit for farm machines. Once plugged in, the device captures information from planting and harvesting for viewing in real time on an iPad. Also, the data can be analyzed later on a computer.
A farmer can choose what electronic field records he wants to sell, and to what buyers. Farmobile is the custodian and marketer of the data but never owns it.
Farmobile devices also help farmers keep track of multiple farm machines running in various fields at the same time, said Jake Buttles, who uses the technology in Manawa, about 45 miles west of Green Bay.
For a variety of reasons, some farmers won’t sell their data. They will use it for their own purposes, however, such as negotiating land rent prices based on the profit that is expected from a crop.
Privacy, and how field records are used by others, are concerns.
Some farmers worry that GPS-linked data could be obtained by government agencies and environmental groups or that a hedge fund could use planting and harvesting information to speculate in commodities markets.
So farmers are careful about how they release their information, said Tom Thieding, spokesman for the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
“If you are a grower, you are always kind of peeking over the fence to see what your neighbor is doing. This is a little more sophisticated way of doing it,” Thieding said.
Earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau Federation launched an online survey to collect feedback from farmers about field data.
When the Farm Bureau did a similar survey in 2014, nearly 3,400 farmers responded. That survey found that 77 percent of farmers were concerned that their data could be used for regulatory purposes. More than 80 percent said they were unaware of all the ways a company intended to use their data and with whom it was being shared.
Still, harnessing farm data has the potential to be the next big driver in agriculture productivity gains, similar to the transition more than a century ago from horses to tractors.
The number of new equipment and data technologies deployed by farmers is going to more than double in the near future, according to Caledonia Solutions, a Minneapolis research and consulting firm.
“This is not what you would expect to see, with farm incomes projected to stay low for the next few years. Farmers aren’t waiting to make moves for improving their operations,” Robert Hill, principal of Caledonia Solutions, said in statement.