From Alabama to Iowa: Understanding Farmers’ Data Needs

Accessing data to improve decision making for any business is essential, but it’s especially critical for farmers. From smart phones, to GPS driven tractors,
to accessing the latest market or weather reports—data has become crucial to success.

“Big data are an essential part of agriculture today,” says Joe Colletti, interim endowed dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Our continuing goal is to help farmers get access to the data they need and help make small- and medium-sized farm and food enterprises more sustainable.”

To work towards that goal Iowa State and Tuskegee University collaborated
to hold workshops at both campuses
in February 2018 sponsored by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture under the Food Agriculture Cyberinformatics and Tools program. Before the workshops were held researchers collaborated to develop surveys to gather information about the data needs of producers in Alabama and Iowa.

The survey indicated farmers in both states use data in their operations, but had problems accessing or finding information, says Alejandro Plastina, an Iowa State assistant professor of economics who led Iowa State’s team.

“There was this mismatch about data they didn’t think was available and data that was available,” Plastina says. “One participant talked about not having a reference price for heirloom tomatoes and the USDA makes average prices available online, although probably not at the desired local disaggregation level.”

Robert Zabawa, a research professor with Agricultural and Research Economics at Tuskegee University, says Alabama farms are small compared to Iowa farms in both sales and acres.

“We did the same survey and the answers were flipped for what Alabama farmers required and what Iowa farmers needed,” Zabawa says. “Having access to information about government programs was a high priority for Alabama farmers, but weather data was a high priority for Iowa farmers.”

Most of the Alabama farmers surveyed were African American and focused
on small-scale livestock and vegetable production, but interested in how data could improve their operation, says Zabawa.

The message Paul Hunter, a farmer near Decorah, Iowa, took to the meeting was access to data. He says data applications are geared for larger farmers, which makes sense.

“If you’re going to charge $5,000 for your data service you don’t expect farmers with 40 acres to be your biggest customer base,” Hunter says.

Researchers at Iowa State and Tuskegee University will continue to address factors limiting data access for small- to medium- sized farmers. Both workshops were held as part of the National Science Foundation big data initiative announced in November 2015. The initiative is organized into four regional hubs throughout the United States. Iowa State University is a co-leader of the Midwest Big Data Hub grant, which includes 11 states and five universities.