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Should Farmers Share Their Crop Data?

Jan 25, 2014

From NPR.  (Listen Online to the radio story.)  By Dan Charles.

Should Farmers Give John Deere And Monsanto Their Data? 

Click Here to hear the story. 

Starting this year, farmers across the Midwest can sign up for a service that lets big agribusiness collect data from their farms, minute by minute, as they plant and harvest their crops.

Monsanto and John Deere are offering competing versions of this service. Both are promising to mine that data for tips that will put more money in farmers' pockets.

But a leading farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation, is telling farmers to be cautious. These services, it says, could threaten farmers' privacy and give the big companies too much power.

The data in question come from detailed maps of farmers' fields.

Jonathan Quinn, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a large farm in northeast Maryland, pulls out a thick binder, opens it up on his kitchen table, and shows me an example. The rectangular outline of one field is covered with multicolored curved shapes, like a weather map showing areas of different temperatures.

The dark green areas, Quinn explains, are areas that produced higher yields. Light green and red areas produced less. "And this gray area, that's just zero yield," he says.

The amount of variation is astonishing. It happens because soil types vary, even within a single field. So does moisture.

Each box on this Monsanto FieldScripts map represents an 18-by-18-foot unit of field. The colors represent different planting rates.

Courtesy of Monsanto
 
Quinn pulls out the machine that collects the data for this map. It's a superaccurate GPS receiver — an oversize version of the kind you'd have in your car. At harvest time, it goes along in the combine, recording how much grain comes from every spot.

Later, at planting time, the receiver controls the planting machinery, placing seeds closer together where the soil is more fertile, or switching seed varieties to match conditions in different parts of the field.

Essentially, the planter is following a pre-programmed "prescription" for each part of the field. "It's all done on software," Quinn explains. "It's loaded onto a thumb drive; you stick the thumb drive into this [GPS display], and when you drive across the field, it automatically knows where it is because of the GPS."

Click here to visit the NPR website and find the rest of the story.

 

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