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Producers value farm data, but fear how it’s being used

An FCC survey found that one in four farmers has become less comfortable sharing data

The topic of data management tends to draw a lot of yawns from farmers. But in an increasingly digitized world, it shouldn’t.

Fred Wall, Farm Credit Canada.
photo: Supplied

“This is one of the hottest topics in agriculture,” said Fred Wall, Farm Credit Canada’s vice-president of marketing.

“It’s something that I think the industry needs to take very seriously.”

And that shift is already happening, Wall told the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors’ Farm Update event here in early February. As the Canadian agriculture industry becomes progressively more digitized, data management is becoming top of mind for farmers who want to know who owns their data and how it’s being used.

A recent Farm Credit Canada Vision Panel survey — the largest ever done on this topic — showed that producers’ attitudes toward sharing their data has shifted significantly over just the past three years.

“The thing that really threw me was the depth of passion around this topic. There were 2,001 responses and over 5,700 comments,” said Wall. “It was a real eye-opener.”

More and more, farmers are gathering data on everything from farm finances to data generated by equipment, and using it to improve their efficiency and decision-making. Most Canadian farmers find value in responsible data usage, said Wall.

“There’s no lack of imagination or lack of desire to use this data on the part of producers,” he said.

But right now, between 40 and 50 per cent of all farm records aren’t digitized in any way. And in some cases, large-scale farming operations across Canada are being run out of a Hilroy notebook, said Wall.

“We know our customers are smart. They run multimillion-dollar corporations. There must be some good reason why they’re not doing it.”

Reduced trust

Part of the problem is the ‘ag-tech adoption gap.’ In 2016, Farm Credit Canada studied the slow uptake of new technologies in the agriculture industry and found three major obstacles to adoption. First, farmers often find new technology too complex and hard to use. Second, farmers couldn’t justify the return on investment — not just in the price of the tools, but also in the time cost of learning and using them.

But the third and most significant barrier was trust.

“We heard at the time that they weren’t sure they trusted big companies to handle their data. That’s a significant issue,” said Wall.

And that issue hasn’t gone away in the three years since then, he added.

“What we’ve heard from producers today is that we have made some progress on complexity and return on investment. It’s nowhere near where it needs to be, but it’s still better than 2016,” said Wall.

“But here’s the piece that nobody predicted in 2016 — we’re actually no further ahead in trust. In fact, we’re sliding back a little bit.”

When asked whether they had become more or less comfortable sharing their data over the past two years, one-quarter of survey respondents indicated that they had become less comfortable. And with good reason.

“Some of the nightmare fuel that came out of the survey were things like, ‘I have people showing up to my farm knowing things about my operation that they shouldn’t know. This is making me more and more nervous,’” said Wall.

“Ultimately we know that those who digitize their records tend to run better operations. That’s good for everything from the health of their operation to eventual market access for Canadian farm products.

“But I understand where their fear comes from.”

Seventy-one per cent of those surveyed said that the conditions governing the use of their data are very important, but only 25 per cent understand who owns their data.

“Producers think it’s important to know what happens to the information they share, but it’s not clear who owns it or how it’s being used, and they feel many companies don’t ask for their approval in sharing it.”

And this fear transcends age or willingness to adopt new technologies. Those farmers who answered that they like to use digital channels as much as possible were just as likely to have lost trust, and the same is true for different age groups — the under-35 crowd was just as concerned as the over-55s.

This might sound surprising, given that people post all manner of things on social media. But while things like vacation or restaurant preferences feel like public information, trade secrets are different, and that’s where this fear stems from.

“Most producers look at their farm data much more as trade secrets. So there’s a very different expectation around privacy and sharing,” said Wall.

Ask the right questions

In order to rebuild producer trust, the first step to these types of commercial arrangements needs to be transparency.

“What can farmers do to help with this? They need to ask the right questions,” said Wall.

The first question farmers need to ask is, ‘Who owns my data?’

“This becomes hugely important when you’re thinking about succession and farm transfer,” he said. “If lots of the farm’s records are kept digitally with a service provider, it’s going to be pretty important to know who gets access to that and who owns it.”

Next, who is the data shared with and why?

“This is a serious point of anxiety for farmers that they’ve only just started talking about,” said Wall. “They’re starting to get an awareness that their data has real value — that it is an asset on their operation.”

Finally, ‘can I take my data with me?’ “This is kind of a litmus test. You obviously don’t own it if you don’t have a right of exit.”

That’s one of the commitments Farm Credit Canada is making to its clients, Wall added. In order to combat some of this digital uncertainty, Farm Credit Canada has become the first Canadian company to receive Ag Data Transparent certification for its AgExpert software. This certification shows that Farm Credit Canada is committed to transparency in data collection, access, use, portability, availability, and retention.

“As we became more and more aware of this problem, this is one of the steps we decided to take,” said Wall, adding that as many as 10 other Canadian ag-tech companies are now exploring this certification.

“I’m hoping this will be a solution that works for farmers everywhere.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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