Tenant farmers: how "smart" agricultural equipment siphons off farmers' crop and soil data

The agricultural sector is increasingly a data-driven business, where the "internet of farming" holds out the promise of highly optimized plowing, fertilizing, sowing, pest-management and harvesting — a development that is supercharging the worst practices of the ag-business monopolies that have been squeezing farmers for most of a century.

Last summer's Copyright Office hearings on the DMCA brought the issue to a non-agricultural audience, when we learned that John Deere was locking away farmers' own soil-density data, generated during normal plowing, and striking deals with Monsanto to license the data back to farmers, but only if they bought Monsanto seeds in the bargain.

Deere relies on Section 1201 of the DMCA — which makes it a felony punishable by 5 years in prison and a $500K fine to tamper with "copyright access-control systems" — to prevent farmers from reconfiguring their tractors to get at their data for free.

Deere pioneered this approach, but it's not the only company that sees the value in farmer data, nor the only one that's taking advantage of bad tech laws and commercial leverage to give itself a whip-hand over farmers.

Techcrunch's Jason Tatge thinks that there's reason to be hopeful that these businesses will come to an equitable arrangement with farmers. I'm less hopeful. For farmers to bargain successfully with big ag business, they'll need leverage — the legal right to access their own data, regardless of laws like the DMCA and the CFAA. If it's literally a felony for farmers to provide their own data-management and analysis, then we should not expect companies like Deere to offer them a fair shake. Why would a multinational corporation ask for permission when they can just grab, and when the state will punish any farmer who tries to stop them?

Farm data is expected to be a $20–$25 billion revenue opportunity, but we haven't yet determined how the data can be collected, structured, stored and shared, let alone monetized.

Today, there are no clear-cut guidelines regarding the privacy of the data, nor its ownership and control. Many different players impose contractual obligations in fine print, but few are likely to stick until there is wide-reaching agreement on what's appropriate.

Contracts between farmers and their partners are opaque at best, and manipulative at worst. It's time we put farmer data rights up front, in clear language that establishes who owns the data.

We need to make transparent and fair to all parties involved key issues like data ownership and control. We need to incentivize all parties to proliferate data to mutual benefit.

The land grab for farm data
[Jason Tatge/Techcrunch]