Using Agricultural Data to Address Sustainability Challenges, By Todd Janzen

Ag data has become increasingly important to not only farmers, but corporate companies like McDonalds and PepsiCo as well. In recent years, the USDA and other government agencies have taken significant strides in leveraging agricultural data to drive climate-smart initiatives across the U.S., according to Todd Janzen, agricultural attorney at Janzen Schroeder Ag Law.

“The original promise of data and collecting data from farmers was that you all could benchmark your farms against other farms and you’d be able to figure out certain nuances about how your farm operates that you didn’t know otherwise,” says Janzen.

Here are some of the notable companies in different categories of the Climate-Smart Soil Tech Landscape 2020 who have used ag data.

Source: The Mixing Bowl/HTTPS://

Now, ag data is set to play a huge role in climate change. Janzen says in recent years, the USDA has taken significant strides in leveraging agricultural data to drive climate-smart initiatives across the country.

“In 2022, USDA announced a $3.1 billion program aimed at funding climate-smart commodity projects through extensive data collection,” Janzen says.

The investment is estimated to sequester over 60 million tons of carbon dioxide in the next 5 years. Key to the program is a comprehensive data collection effort across farms and fields nationwide. It includes four levels: Project, Partner, Producer and Field, all of which will gather detailed metrics on agricultural practices and environmental impacts. It is going to be interesting to see how this all comes together,” says Janzen. “There is going to be an enormous amount of field-level ag data collected about “climate-smart” agriculture. We should learn a lot about what truly works and what doesn’t when sequestering carbon with agriculture. For now, while we are at the front end of this process, let’s focus on making sure we get the data collection contracts right.”

What information will be used?

“They want to know what your farm service agency ID is, of course, where you’re located,” says Janzen. “One of the big requirements too is that you be in compliance with all sorts of other USDA programs because they don’t want somebody who might’ve torn up a wetlands to then try and put it into one of these programs to then get paid to convert it to something else. So at the producer level, they want all this information, which if you participate in crop insurance, you’re already giving USDA this information. They want to know what the practice is you’re doing, what commodity it is, baseline yields, and then tillage, irrigation, all of that. And you’ll submit this all to a company that was awarded a grant, and then they will provide it up to USDA.”

According to the Farm Journal’s 2021 Trust in Food Survey, 58% of farmers do not trust federal, state or local government offices with use of their ag data.

To ensure that farmers feel safe, Janzen says there are protections of ag data, the most important being that the USDA cannot disclose information provided by producers or owners of agricultural land concerning agricultural, farming or conservation practices, or the land itself.

Janzen says clarity and accountability in partnerships are critical in fostering sustainable agricultural practices. Ag data can be used as an improvement tool.

“Having that data now can really pay dividends with a lot of these climate projects because the data has real value to show how the farm has improved over years and how, for example, you’ve improved soil health over the years,” Janzen says.

The USDA has data protections that ensure that they do not disclose any data that comes from farmers, but they are allowed to disclose certain information.

“Even though they may not disclose your data, they may disclose that they’ve paid your farm a certain amount of money to participate in a program,” Janzen says. Another exception is that they are allowed to provide anonymized statistical information as long as it doesn’t share the owner, producer, or data gathering site information.”

According to Janzen, disclosure is also allowed with the consent of the producer. So it is important for farmers to pay attention to the data collection and sharing protocols outlined in the program contracts.

“If you sign up for one of these climate smart commodity projects, make sure you read the data agreement because there are USDA protections, but there’s also that middleman, the grantee that you need to understand whether or not they want to use your data,” says Janzen.