Bringing Transparency to Ag Data Contracts

The problems farmers have with embracing farm data programs are well documented, but I think it comes down to three things: trust, time, and complexity. Trust — many farmers don’t know what happens to their data after they send it to an ag technology provider (ATP). Time — farmers are already busy. Who has time to read detailed privacy policies and data license agreements? Complexity — farm data contracts are different than normal farm contracts. Most farmers are familiar with land leases, production agreements, and other contracts. Ag data platforms ask farmers to sign a variety of other agreements — or check “I accept” boxes — that contain terms foreign to the farmer.

An effort led by industry farm groups and a number of ATPs has been trying to address these issues. Step one of the process was to come up with a set of industry principles that everyone could abide — The Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data (Data Principles). Step two was to make sure that ATPs that say they follow the Data Principles actually do just that. That where the Ag Data Transparency Evaluator comes in.

How does the Evaluator work? Companies that abide by the Data Principles must demonstrate compliance by answering a 10 question form about how they use a farmer’s ag data. These 10 questions are based upon the Data Principles. Question 1 asks what “types” of data the ag data platform collects from the farmer. Questions 2–10 ask what happens to this data after it is uploaded to an ATP. Here are a few examples:

Do the Ag Technology Provider’s (ATP’s) agreements address ownership of my data after my data is transferred to the ATP?
Will the ATP obtain my consent before providing other companies with access to my data?
After I upload data to the ATP, will it be possible to retrieve my original complete dataset in an original or equivalent format?

An ATP answers the 10 question form and then submits the form to an independent third party administrator for evaluation together with copies of the policies and contracts applicable to the platform. The administrator will review and cross-reference the answers with the data and privacy policies used by that company. If the answers are transparent and correct, the ATP receives a license to use the “Ag Data Transparent” seal on its marketing materials. If the answers are incorrect, the ATP is given an opportunity to revise their policies to bring them in line with the Data Principles.

The Ag Data Transparent Seal (use forbidden except under license)

Who is behind this effort? The Ag Data Transparency Evaluator is a non-profit corporation backed by both farmer-led industry organizations and ATPs. The farmer-led organizations include: American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmer’s Union, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, National Farmers Union, National Sorghum Producers, American Soybean Association, and National Potato Council. A number of ATPs have also supported the effort, including: AGCO, AgConnections, Agrible, AgIntegrated, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association, Beck’s Hybrids, Conservis, CNH Industrial, Crop IMS, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, Farm Dog, Farmobile, Granular, Grower Information Services Cooperative, GROWMARK, Independent Data Management, John Deere, and The Climate Corporation.

There are two important facts about the governing structure. First, the farmer-led organizations must approve all significant decisions made by the corporation. This means that the companies that are under evaluation cannot influence the review process. Second, the ATPs involved in this effort include all sizes, from large multi-billion dollar publicly traded companies to small start-ups. The 10 questions and review process work for both.

How do farmers use the Evaulator? There are two ways farmers can use the Evaluator. Farmers can look for the “Ag Data Transparent” seal, which indicates that the company has been through the evaluation process. ATPs that have passed the evaluation use this on their websites and marketing materials. Farmers can also go to the Ag Data Transparent website and compare different company responses to the 10 questions. The website launched in March 2017 and response has been very positive so far.

Why is this project important? Some of the biggest productivity gains in US agriculture in the next ten years are going to come from capturing ag data and use big data analytics. But for this to happen, farmers have to use the data tools available. And in order to make it easier for farmers to embrace these tools, we need to give farmers the ability to easily decide whether to use certain products offered by ATPs. The Ag Data Transparency Evaluator does that, giving farmers a quick and easy tool to evaluate big data products.

The effort is also important because ag data contracts today are a mishmash of online forms, license agreements, and policies.

The Evaluator pushes ATPs to reform their contracts with farmers, making them easier to understand and addressing the issues that matter to farmers — privacy, ownership, control, and security.

Other industries have statutory protections for consumers, but ag data is an open field. No laws specifically protect ag data and that’s why the contracts need to be clear.

The Ag Data Transparency Evaluator does not answer all of farmers’ questions about using ag data platforms, but it is a great step in the right direction.