The Future of Agriculture is Data Control

By Tim Kalinowski


“Farmers were traditionally the mechanics, since they had to fix their equipment. They were carpenters, because they had to fix their fencing or their buildings. I am arguing increasingly they are hackers, because they actually need to engage with their technology, understand their technology, and the role that technology plays in agriculture.”

This was the central message of futurist Jesse Hirsh to about 200 young farmers at the Farm Credit Canada Lethbridge 2019 Ignite conference earlier this month.

“Not hackers as criminals, but hackers as in technology-curious,” he went on to explain. “People who question technology. People who take technology apart, and who try to understand how it works and why it works; so they can have some critical relationship with their technology and not be dominated by it. So instead of working for John Deere, John Deere works for you.”

Hirsh said companies like John Deere, Tesla and Uber are not, contrary to what most believe, engineering companies whose focus is on the products they create, but rather they are data-mining companies whose main commodity is the information they acquire about their customers through the products they create.

“It’s the new gold rush,” explained Hirsh. “John Deere no longer describes itself as a tractor company, or even a heavy equipment company. No, they now describe themselves as a technology company.

“In fact they were at the Consumer Electronics show in January showing off some of their self-driving combines and tractors. Part of what they were doing in wooing the technology crowd was to let them know about the value of the data they possess.”

Hirsh said it does not sit right with him when he thinks about what farm equipment companies like John Deere are doing, and it shouldn’t sit right with farmers either.

“I am kind of irritated with the idea that if you pay sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a tractor or a combine, you do not own the data that tractor or combine collects,” he stated. “If you are going to spend that kind of money to buy that equipment to work your land, you should own the data that equipment generates. And you should have access to that data.”

According to Hirsh, farmers should be angry the data being collected on their lands from their operations and machines, by “these computers with blades,” to financially benefit these big companies without farmers seeing a dime of it.

“The flip side of that is if your computer with blades, your combine or tractor, breaks down, you are no longer allowed to fix it,” explained Hirsh. “Now, all of a sudden, you have to have an authorized technician come and repair the vehicle because John Deere has so much proprietary software and sensors they don’t want the average farmer messing it up, let alone understanding how it operates.”

Hirsh said the reason why this data was so important is it is an absolute pre-requisite to creating better Artificial Intelligence programs in machines, and ultimately better robotics.

In effect, he said, companies are taking data from farm operators and teaching these machines how to drive without any compensation so they can sell them back to those same farm machines for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future.

One encouraging thing, Hirsh said, is not all agricultural producers are taking this state-of-affairs lying down.

“There is a broader social movement called ‘The Right to Repair,” explained Hirsh, “that is demanding legislation, that is demanding the right so even if you didn’t have the knowledge you could hire someone independent to come and have the knowledge and fix your tractor or combine because it is your equipment: You should not only possess the data it generates, but ensure you can change any of the software on which it operates. This is why I would generally argue farmers are hackers. If you think about, traditionally.”

Hirsh encouraged those at the Ignite conference to take the “Right to Repair” idea one step further, and consider creating their own open source software, blockchains, and parts-making-wood pre-fabrication CNC-3D printers to create a future that is not so dependent on giant data-mining companies and implement suppliers.

“We need to empower ourselves to be a little more critical when it comes to the way in which we use technology, because increasingly it is going to play a very large role in telling you how to manage your farm,” Hirsh said. “We are at this critical point where we need to push back and say what am I getting? And to what extent am I still empowered as a decision-maker, as a farmer, as an entrepreneur, who controls my land and my operation?”

“Why should any of this stuff be proprietary?” he further asked.

“We can be sharing designs for our buildings, sharing designs for the tools we need, sharing designs of the software and technology we run, and then all of a sudden these things start becoming a whole lot more accessible, and a whole lot more affordable, and it allows us to focus on the things we need to do.”