How to put data to work for farmers

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Has Farmers Business Network found the holy grail of putting data to work for farmers?

There is the power of numbers. This is something humanity has always been well aware of. For millennia, members of various groups have shared their knowledge or otherwise contributed to a group effort, and then shared the resulting benefits on an individual level.

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Among farmers, the concept of sharing information among themselves is as old as occupation. In recent years, with the emergence of precision agriculture, this exchange of information has intensified massively. The world’s largest equipment makers have stepped into the game, leveraging their GPS tractor steering systems to allow farmers to track crop results year to year and field to field – and also compare the results with other farmers.

However, a few years ago a disruptor entered the scene that took the power of numbers in agriculture to a whole new level, with data and on many other fronts.

Farmers Business Network: a bit of history

It was in 2013 that two Californian entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, Charles Baron and Amol Deshpande, began to create Farmers Business Network (FBN). Back then, and still today, companies providing precision farming services did not tend to pay farmers for the use of their data, and farmers had no choice but to know. if and how their information is used by businesses (one use is continuous product development).

To change that, Baron and Deshpande raised millions of dollars in private equity, but they decided not only to focus on data, but also to empower farmers to get better prices and services.

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If a farmer creates a field boundary, then he can access field-level soil maps, terrain maps, weather data, and satellite imagery / crop health monitoring.  - Image: Farmers Business Network

If a farmer creates a field boundary, then he can access field-level soil maps, terrain maps, weather data, and satellite imagery / crop health monitoring. – Image: Farmers Business Network

Compare prices and buy inputs online

In 2016 in the United States (and a year later in Canada), FBN launched an online site where its members could compare the prices of seed varieties. The system has expanded to allow price comparisons of other agricultural inputs. Then, the possibility of buying inputs was added and FBN now offers 1,200 inputs. (He also breeds and markets his own varieties of soybeans and corn in the United States).

FBN members can now also access low cost input finance and crop insurance, and even health insurance. The company has stated in its marketing materials that some of its members save tens of thousands of dollars each year.

FBN’s disruption of agricultural input purchases appears to have met with resistance. Last year, FBN filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau in Canada, alleging that input companies BASF, Corteva, Bayer and Cargill had either stopped supplying FBN or restricted its supply. FBN alleged that this was a threat to its expansion into the Canadian market and possibly even to its existence. In February 2020, a Canadian federal court ordered several companies to comply with the Competition Bureau’s investigation into the case, and also whether any of those companies acted in a coordinated fashion against FBN.

Data services

However, a big part of FBN’s vision is for member farmers to benefit from the power of “big data”. But before we look at what data is provided to members, let’s take a look at the structure of how data is shared. Members always had the option of submitting as much data as they wanted to the pool to be analyzed, with the FBN keeping the data “in-house” and anonymous. The results of the analysis of aggregated data are shared among all members.

When asked what percentage of members / users provide information voluntarily, FBN’s vice president of R&D, Matt Meisner, said that question would not be answered due to privacy concerns. “But we can say we have a network dataset based on over 270 million events of acres of agronomic data,” he says, “over 6,200 seeds with yield data in ‘Seed Finder ‘, over 100,000 invoices and over 35,000 seed labels. “

Over 25,000 members worldwide

There was a membership fee (recently € 542 / year for Canadian members), but this was removed in September 2020 so that, FBN said, farmers could keep more of their profits. In the past six months, FBN claims to have added more than 10,000 new members and that in May 2021 the membership exceeded 25,000 worldwide. These agricultural businesses cover 70 million acres in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Until the end of August 2021, FBN also operates a referral program that rewards existing members for referrals as well as new members they have enrolled.

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This image shows the seeding rates.  FBN has a team of data specialists who help producers upload data seamlessly.  - Image: Farmers Business Network

This image shows the seeding rates. FBN has a team of data specialists who help producers upload data seamlessly. – Image: Farmers Business Network

Levels of service

Any member (by simply creating an account, which is free) can access reports such as the FBN Seed Relabelling Report and the Price Transparency Report. They can also check out the FBN community forum and buy from the FBN store. “If they create a field boundary (i.e. identify a piece of land they are operating on) then they can access terrain-level soil maps, terrain maps, weather data. and satellite imagery / crop health monitoring, ”Meisner explains.

“I don’t really consider submitting field boundaries to be ‘data submission’, but it’s a little more personal than just creating an account. Otherwise, other functionalities are then “blocked” on the contribution. The seed researcher, benchmarking and yield forecasting require [submission of] agronomic data. Price transparency requires the submission of invoices. Seed relabeling information requires submission of seed labels.

Meisner also explains that FBN allows “producers to share data as easily as possible. FBN has a team of data specialists who help producers download data seamlessly, a platform that integrates data from any precision system, a mobile app that makes downloads easy and convenient, and API integrations with major hardware companies. (API stands for Application Programming Interface, a software intermediary that allows two applications to communicate.)

Soil sampling and recommendations

For a small fee, members can also access the “Scalable Plan”, which includes soil sampling and associated specific recommendations. Gradable is another FBN program “for scoring, sourcing and pricing low-carbon grains from farm to fork”. “Gradable Carbon” helps farmers generate and market carbon credits.

At the same time, FBN plans to launch more offers, “focused on creating transparency, competition and helping you lower your costs and increase your profit potential”.

When asked for details, Meisner provided none. “Our goal is to continually provide farmers with the tools they need to maximize return on investment,” he says, “whether through lower input costs, better seeds, price transparency. on equipment, cutting-edge crop marketing information, cheaper health insurance, and more. ”

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The FBN data portal.  FBN offers 1,200 inputs and members can now also access low cost input finance and crop insurance, and even health insurance.  - Image: Farmers Business Network

The FBN data portal. FBN offers 1,200 inputs and members can now also access low cost input finance and crop insurance, and even health insurance. – Image: Farmers Business Network

FBN data value

Steve Shirtliffe, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan and a keen observer of trends in agricultural data use, explains that ultimately the value of data analysis to an individual farmer is linked the amount of data from nearby farmers who use similar farming practices and inputs.

“There’s a lot of value in sharing data and a lot of power in big data if you can remove the confounders,” he notes. “If it’s a simple measure, like the price of a product or an input, it’s fairly easy to assess – choose the highest price if you are selling or the lowest if you are buying. However, for more complex measures such as the response of crop yield to the rate of an input or variety, there are many other factors such as weather and soil conditions that affect this response.

Automatically conduct experiments on farmers’ fields

Shirtliffe says that in cases like this, the use of big data may require more complicated analysis to rule out these other factors that may affect the response. “For example, in a very dry year like 2021, we probably won’t see much response to fungicides – does that mean fungicides shouldn’t be used? he asks. “My group is currently investigating methods to automatically conduct experiments on farmers’ fields using new designs and tools. We hope that this MORSE technology can bridge this gap between big data and experiments on small plots. “


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