Opinion: Data is the key to farming success

Among the myriad of increasingly tedious opinion on the forthcoming election and the rather more entertaining tweets on Diane Abbott’s mastery of maths that have been cluttering up my Twitter feed of late, there was a link to a very interesting piece in the Economist.

It was about the emergence of the “data economy” and how those businesses that control the flow of data increasingly control the world.

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Data, it suggested, is the new oil and the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook the new Exxon, Texaco and Shell.

David AlvisDavid Alvis is managing director of Yorkshire Dairy Goats. He is a Nuffield Scholar

“Big data” has been a hot topic in business and research circles for a while now and the opportunities that it offers are as relevant to agriculture as to any other walk of life.

Farms generate masses of the stuff every day and we, often inadvertently, capture more of it than many of us imagine. But are we even starting to realise the value of this harvest? 

The ability to collect and analyse data and exploit its value is fast becoming a significant differentiating factor between successful farming businesses and the rest, and this gap will only widen over time.

Research worries

It is also a well-articulated concern within the industry that agricultural research, particularly the applied or “real-world” kind, has declined worryingly in recent decades, not least because of the significant cost associated with running long-term trials at farm scale.

The past 10 years has seen a partial reversal of this trend, with some welcome increases in public sector funding, but the systemic loss of  research infrastructure over the past 30 years has – and will continue to – hamper progress, as there simply aren’t the bodies on the ground or the facilities to carry out the work at the scale it is needed.

Small-scale, single trials are often unreliable, expensive and risk generating misleading information that is of little or even negative value to those who pay for it.

AHDB dilemma

This must be a dilemma for the AHDB, which, as the primary sponsor of farmer-funded research, often struggles to demonstrate value to levy payers – particularly  to larger leading-edge operators that feel that they contribute disproportionately to the research pot, yet get little in return.

Paradoxically, these businesses may well hold the key to resolving this problem and it lies in the data they routinely generate and capture for management purposes.

It is a generally accepted rule of big data that scale has a value of its own. It confers much-needed reliability to the data set,which – being generated in “real-world” situations – overcomes many of the shortcomings of small-scale trials.

Farm-generated data

Surely this makes farm-generated data valuable currency for research purposes, but its value needs to be recognised and paid for. So how’s this for a potential win-win situation?

Instead of commissioning expensive and unreliable small-scale trials out of limited levy funds, what if the AHDB were to take anonymised but relevant farm-generated data sets in (partial) lieu of levy?

Obviously, there would need to be qualifying standards for data quality, but it could potentially make available invaluable contemporary data resources for researchers, for little or no incremental cost and at the same time provide reassurance of the real-world validity of the input data being used, as well as offsetting the levy cost, to the source businesses .

There will undoubtedly be many obstacles, both political and operational, to making this work effectively, but surely this is an unexploited resource the industry cannot afford to overlook any longer?

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