Thursday, May 29, 2014

Show me the data...

It's about time the pushback for cramming Big Data down our throats got some more attention.  For this farmer, it is not, as the general media seem to think, rooted in obstinacy and ignorance.

But the story of prescriptive planting is also a cautionary tale about the conflicts that arise when data entrepreneurs meet old-fashioned businessfolk. Farmers might be expected to have mixed feelings about the technology anyway: although it boosts yields, it reduces the role of discretion and skill in farming—their core competence. However, the bigger problem is that farmers distrust the companies peddling this new method. They fear that the stream of detailed data they are providing on their harvests might be misused. Their commercial secrets could be sold, or leak to rival farmers; the prescriptive-planting firms might even use the data to buy underperforming farms and run them in competition with the farmers; or the companies could use the highly sensitive data on harvests to trade on the commodity markets, to the detriment of farmers who sell into those markets. [More]
I'm not buying into precise seed-by-seed technology because there is no data to prove it consistently pays off, especially on my farm. The reasons are obvious and ignored in the rush to sell the Apparatus of Big Data to us.

Just off the top of my head, here are my objections:
  1. ALL of the ideas are based on predicting the growing season weather. This overriding factor of production hath made fools of us all too often.
  2. There are no definitive differences between hybrids sufficient to accurately attach them to soil types and conditions. How do you know there wasn't another hybrid you could have selected which wouldn't have boosted your profits far more? We are dealing with a system of enormous complexity and more variables than even this gadgets can begin to demonstrably manage.
  3. The non-trivial costs of multi-hybrid, variable population, and other planting gimmicks are seldom if ever added into the cost/benefit calculations.
  4. Hybrid turnover is now so rapid, there is no possibility of proving claims of site-specific benefits over a range of years and conditions. Besides your choice is limited to whatever seed Monsanto, et al. produce the previous season, so you're not really choosing between thousands of hybrids - you're picking whatever is in the warehouse.
  5. The premium for more uniform soil-type fields should become more pronounced as the need for site-specific solutions would be less.
  6. Knowing what is going on at every inch in the field is a far cry from being able to remedy any problem at the inch level. Other than lower your yield projection what will knowing there is a 20 acre patch of fungus or bugs in your corn field in August do? Are you going to pay for and aim a plane/highboy with that degree of specificity?
By the way, here is how the Economist article cited above understands what Monsanto is doing.

The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name. [More]
I suppose it is possible producers who load up on this questionable and technology will blow the rest of us out of the water. But it could also be they will fall behind because they become high-cost producers during a period of volatile prices. Nothing will stop this false precision in its tracks faster than $4 corn, IMHO.


Bill Harshaw said...

I've the impression that precision agriculture has gained more headway in cotton. I'm not sure why--higher value crop maybe?

Anonymous said...

Yep! Well Said. Esp. objection 1

Anonymous said...

Yep!! You folks are starting catch and biotech hype being pushed down farmers throats. Now, who owns the data and who owns the seed? I do not buy into these areas hence do not like being a robot working with "stuff" that has questionable or little data to support long-term benefits.

someguy said...

I agree that the expectations (and sales pitch) seem far too high for this technology based on the experience of those of us who have seen more than a few production years. Experience tends to show us how the few factors that we control are often quickly outweighed by the plethora of factors we either don't control, can't measure, or aren't really even aware of. Of course, it should also be noted that, like you, I'm a creature of central IL and the technology may have more value in areas with more in-field variability.

Anonymous said...

John you are right on; as are comments. I would not sweat this very much.