Agriculture’s big “Moneyball” moment

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By American Farm Bureau Federation

Baseball and modern agriculture share some common ground, in fact, as agriculture’s fast-paced technological advancements are getting the industry in the game of leveraging data. Take, for example, the movie “Moneyball,” the story of the Oakland Athletics (A’s) baseball team and general manager Billy Beane.

The central premise of “Moneyball” is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders over the past century is subjective. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in and batting average, which are typically used to gauge players, are relics of a 20th-century view of the game. Instead, on-base percentages and slugging percentages are better indicators of offensive success, according to rigorous statistical analysis.

As it plays out in the movie, by re-evaluating the strategies and variables that produce wins on the field, the 2002 A’s, with just a relatively paltry $40 million-plus in salary, were competitive with larger market teams such as the New York Yankees, who spent more than $125 million in payroll that same season. This analytical approach brought the A’s to the playoffs in 2002 and 2003.

Leveraging data in agriculture can be thought about similarly. In agriculture, collecting data is nothing new. Statistics such as yield, acreage and price, typically used to gauge profitability, are carryovers from a 20th century-view of agriculture. However, identifying site-specific variables on a farmer’s field such as planting population, the type of seed hybrid planted, soil topography and fertilizer usage, on top of old metrics, provide better indicators to develop a “prescription” for farmers to use on their individual crop ground to determine what to grow, how to grow it and when to harvest. Through the use of rigorous statistical analysis, that prescription usually enhances the farm’s overall profitability. In fact, farmers responding to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s data privacy survey indicated that the use of precision technologies have reduced their input costs by an average of 15 percent, while increasing their crop yields by an average of 13 percent.

Precision technologies and the data generated are agriculture’s version of the analysis used in “Moneyball.” Simply put, the use of data can lead to better decisions and more dollars in a farmer’s pocket, if used correctly. Ultimately the use of data can provide a competitive advantage to farmers who use it versus farmers who don’t. It simply makes farmers better farmers by taking deficiencies and turning them into efficiencies.

But whether it’s baseball or agriculture does the data itself have any value? The value is not in the numbers themselves as opposed to the results of the analysis of the data. The Oakland A’s front office used individual player performance data together with analytical methods to field a team that could better compete against richer baseball teams. In contrast, agricultural technology providers turn farmer’s data into a service or a product that will help a farmer make different decisions. But some are asking if all that farm-level data, when aggregated, will create a competitive advantage in commodity markets or lead to a potential moral hazard.

That concern is real in the countryside. Over 75 percent of farmers responding to AFBF’s recent survey on big data expressed concern that their farm data could be used by a company or third party for market-sensitive commercial activities. A company having access to vast amounts of real-time data could develop near instant commodity reports, tilting the playing field between large and small companies. In addition, more than 77 percent of farmers were concerned that their data could get in the hands of another entity altogether and be used for regulatory purposes. So how are companies using farmers’ data? More than 82 percent of farmers were unsure of the various directions agriculture technology providers intended to go with their farm data.

Ensuring that farmers are aware of how a company intends to use their data is paramount. The 21st century view of the world is changing through the use of data analytics and real-time information to satiate an information-hungry society.

With less land to farm and more mouths to feed around the world, doing more with less has to be the focal point in agriculture. The use of data and innovative technologies will be one of the tools to help us achieve the goal of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. Yet, we cannot lose sight of the critical need to responsibly manage data and recognize it as the powerful aid, resource and asset that it is. If data and innovation are the drivers in feeding a growing world by 2050, transparency from companies to farmers must be accomplished in order for agriculture to win this ever-important World Series.