Farmers Look to Farm Bill for Data Innovations That Would Boost Profits, Reduce Risk

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best during a 1956 speech: “farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” Sixty-one years later, I believe we have the data and technology to help farmers, researchers, and lawmakers better understand how farming practices affect factors like risk, profitability, and environmental outcomes on working lands.

Imagine if our farm policy and programs provided the “carrot” to promote the adoption of precision agriculture technologies that can save money, improve environmental conditions, and provide data to improve crop insurance products. Instead of surveying a field with a crop adjuster after a damaging weather event, farmers and ranchers could use technology such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to determine the specific location and severity of damage—a marked improvement in on-farm efficiency.

Improved internal data sharing and management practices at USDA that make data available to qualified researchers to inform policy and farm-level decision making could provide the same boost of efficiency. Policy and federal investments could be improved and better targeted if we could enhance our understanding of how conservation investments, environmental conditions, crop insurance, and yields relate.

Streamlining data collection could reduce the burden on farmers and save taxpayers’ money, making it an especially attractive option in today’s farm economy. Farmers report the same or similar information to NASS, RMA, FSA, NRCS and others already—we should be reducing paperwork fatigue and utilizing that information to save farmers money. Though USDA has already made major improvements in data collection and sharing, there is much more that can be done.

Congress, USDA, the agriculture industry, and the Administration have a chance to make important changes in the next farm bill. These changes should promote data collection, integration, analysis, and sharing that will help farmers understand the risk reduction benefits of conservation practices. Farmers need the proof that conservation practices could reduce risk and improve profitability. Connecting the dots between conservation practices, crop yields, and soil health will improve farmer and rancher knowledge about how to reduce their exposure to risks and will help USDA and RMA maintain a strong and defensible crop insurance program.

There are numerous stakeholders already working on this issue who have perfected ways to use strict privacy protocols to protect sensitive producer data. I urge Congress to engage with producers, conservation and environmental organizations, academics, and others to harness the power of modern day information technology that can improve farm profitability, enhance environmental conditions, and save taxpayers money. Strengthening agriculture data analysis is a uniquely non-partisan issue that all sides should be able to rally behind.

Over a half century has passed since Eisenhower’s speech—yet the original palm pilot (i.e., writing on your hand) is still a common practice used across farm country. Those involved in the 2018 farm bill debate at all levels need to seriously consider its potential for innovation in technology and data. Farmers are crying out for new solutions to old problems, and it is now time for the farm bill to embrace the information age by making data improvements a top priority.

Robert Blair is the VP of Agriculture for Measure | Drone as a Service; a fourth generation farmer from Idaho growing grain, legumes, and livestock; and a member of AGree’s Conservation and Crop Insurance Task Force. He has served as president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, chairman of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) Research & Tech Committee, chairman of the U.S. Wheat/NAWG Joint Biotech Committee, Idaho Farm Bureau Federation county president, an initial member of Idaho’s UAS steering committee, and an initial advisory board member of the Drone World Expo.

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