Information is the main raw material of services industry. Bits are increasingly becoming a key component for manufactured goods produced by secondary sector. The new digital paradigm is now about to also make data the base of yet another new wave of higher productivity in agriculture and other activities of the primary sector.
Agriculture is an activity whose outcome is impacted by many variables. A better or worse yield can be harvested due to land quality, the time seeds were planted, what kind of those were used or how far from each other, the fertilized spread, how or when it was disseminated, what kind of pests appeared and how those were avoided or fight against, etc. And all this without even starting to add to the mix the almost infinite variations of weather conditions….
This is why it takes a long way to learn how to become a good farmer. Years of wise and failed choices give experience. Still, the farmer is left with only his own inevitably short data, making very difficult to find out which element changes made the difference.
If information is the new raw material of the next agricultural revolution, no wonder the growing interest on amassing large amounts of it. The information collected by a single farmer may have some value. The aggregate data of thousands of them is exponentially much more valuable. Big Data applied to agriculture has recently aroused the interest of large corporations with businesses in the primary sector as Dupont or Monsanto. The latter has already launched a new information service called FieldScripts, a prescription planting system Monsanto began to create by purchasing in 2006 Climate Corporation, a Silicon Valley startup not coincidentally founded by former employees of Google, which uses remote sensors and other techniques to map each plantation in US. John Deere tractors, planters and harvesters are already equipped with both GPS and sensors to collect this type of data and make automated use of services such FieldScripts.
Ownership and use of agricultural Big Data is already raising no little controversy. It’s not the goal of this post to discuss the many reasons and implications why it is so, but to expose once more that collaboration and cooperation among small players to create their own intermediation will become the only way to avoid somebody else bigger creating an intermediation for them.
The alternative in this case is called Farmers Business Network, a startup that aggregates data from farmers across the United States to help them learn from each other. For $500 a year, farmers can submit their data, benchmark it against other farms nationwide, find the best seeds for their soil, and see a Consumer Reports-like review of hundreds of agricultural products, among other services.
Farmers Business Network defines itself as an independent farmer-to-farmer agronomic network. Its value proposition consist on connecting farmers and their agronomic data, so the startup can provide them with more information than a single farmer could ever access on their own. Using the network, farmers can use comprehensive and unbiased performance benchmarking and insights on real world input and practice performance. Launched not even two years ago, Farmers Business Network already has information from more than 7 million acres of farmland across 17 states.
Founders of Farmers Business Network pay special attention to introduce themselves as a more collaborative, democratic and horizontal organization than other players in the same market could be (say Monsanto, for instance). They insist the company is “created by farmers for farmers”. They repeat they “democratize farm data, putting the power of information back in farmers’ hands”. They use the motto “Farmers First” asserting “is not a slogan, it’s our whole philosophy”. They promise not to make money by selling their data to other people, or using it to sell their costumers more inputs.
If so, we can consider Farmers Business Network as an example of a kind of co- initiative that could become a category by itself: collaboration for sharing the most valuable raw material today, data and information that becomes much more valuable for all players collaborating that when this data is siloed and inaccessible for each of them separately.
Nevertheless, Farmers Business Network announced recently a $15 million round of funding led by… guess who? Google Ventures.