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Who owns you?

As I stood in the massive greenhouse in Holland it was easy to see that farming had changed. The trays of herbs that generated 40 million euros (C$58 million) for this one glasshouse were vigorously growing under LED lights. It was the first step in the development of the “black box” where the plants’ environment was entirely controlled. My Dutch friend reminded me that you do not need sunlight to grow plants and today there are several systems in place where large amounts of produce is grown without sun.

The development of these systems seldom catches the attention of Canadian farmers, let alone cattlemen. It seems remote to tie spinach to silage but it is all part of a changing landscape. Think of the IP (intellectual property) that is behind growing nutritionally dense food in the dark? Or the precision of systems that measure water output and usage as well as nutrient drop and automatically adds what is needed on a per-plant basis.

Will the use of tall spheres to grow veggies reduce the need for land or beef? That is highly unlikely as populations grow and urbanization is a movement in full force. We do know that the need for land increases with consumption of core crops such as sugar, corn and rice (the world’s most consumed crop is sugar). Yet yields are increasing in little increments under conventional systems. Rice demand continues to climb as varietal research has slowed. The genome was sequenced nearly 10 years ago but farmers still plant familiar varieties with similar traits and keep the seed to do the same again. As the world starves for rice, there remains little data transfer back to the farmer.

The big guns want to change that for all farmed crops starting with corn and wheat. The technology on tractors to collect data was a starting point but the fact that nothing was done with the collected information spurred another idea. Why don’t we (Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Land O’ Lakes) charge the farmers to access their own data so we can sell them product based on the analysis? And so was hatched the idea of prescriptive farming.

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At the heart of the discussion on prescriptive farming, where the farmer pays to have his own data collected and recommendations sent back to him, is trust. Do farmers trust that the same company that sells protected seed will honour the data as farmer owned and not sell it to other parties? What if it becomes tied to seed price or if information is withheld when planting or harvest is to begin? Who is in charge and why isn’t the deal negotiable? More importantly — who has the risk and who profits?

Think about this carefully. Plant breeding and seed development takes years and a costly budget. This is what is needed in areas where environmental change is severe enough that seed performance is poor. But for the rest of the world, particularly in North America, prescriptive farming increases output with the same seed and rather than at a cost, is an income generator for the seed company. The extra income is generated off the back of the farmer who ensures that a portion of any yield increase goes directly to the service provider through the per-acre agreement. When taken a step further and the service provider installs the technology to capture the data, it may not be considered the property of the farmer in many jurisdictions. The farm takes small incremental steps ahead while the seed company/service provider leaps over the moon. The risk of course is that it takes the heat off of plant breeding — a necessary research.

There is a value in prescriptive farming but we still need to ask who is in charge and who profits? Is there enough trust for it to work and how does the consumer see the practice? These are all questions that we could reflect into the beef industry today. Although we don’t grow beef in the dark we have learned how to feed cattle without grass — akin to shutting off the lights. The real time data systems that are in place are extraordinary and they were developed and are maintained by private companies so producers have a choice. But when it comes to the big question of trust, we recognize that we stand hand in hand with grain farmers. Because data collection and analysis is such a huge field that is largely undefined, unchallenged and not understood — everyone dives off the board together.

The formation of grain farmer groups to talk about their rights under the shadow of prescriptive farming is the first step into a new era of farming. Cattlemen must consider that at this time, we too need collective wisdom, driven from the ground up, to understand the value of our data and our rights as we move ahead. In all agriculture there is little time to look behind because there is so much future ahead. We grow plants in the dark, count the seeds on a head of grain from a drone in the sky, measure every drop of water in a spray tank and each event in an animal’s day. This data has value and since the field is so undefined, perhaps cattlemen should till it so they own their data and someone else does not own or restrict them. Individually and collectively, we must negotiate and protect our intellectual property — before they shut off the lights.

Brenda Schoepp is a motivating speaker and mentor who works with young entrepreneurs across Canada and around the world. She can be contacted through her website All rights reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2014

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Contact Brenda through her website: All Rights Reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2018

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