Letter from Langdon: Data Dump

Monsanto is offering to analyze grain farmers’ data for better yields. What's in it for them?

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I’ve gotten a couple of emails from Climate Corporation. Both gave the terse command to sign up. For what I couldn’t tell.

Even in this age of spam and computer viruses, the email was unusually uninformative about the true consequences of opening it.

Who the heck is Climate Corporation, and what do they want from me?

A little looking on the web refreshed my memory. A few years ago, Climate Corporation, a weather research organization, was bought lock, stock and barrel by Monsanto.  Monsanto was just doing what it always does, spending money it makes in the seed and chemical business to buy up hot prospects for future profits.

So what is Monsanto’s Climate Corporation up to?

They’ve become the go-to guys for high-tech farming by offering corn farmers a prescription for more profitable fields.

Here’s how that works. Corn farmers supply Climate Corporation with all their production data: fields, locations, soil types and yield history. Then Climate Corporation evaluates the data along with weather stats like average rainfall and temperatures to create a recipe for better yields – including recommended Monsanto hybrids, plant populations and even planting depths across each field. 

What’s the payoff?

Climate Corporation says participating growers have seen an average 5% yield increase over the last two years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the average American cornfield in 2014 should produce about 165 bushels per acre. That means if I have national average yields and sign up with Climate Corporation, I can grow another eight bushels of corn worth around $4 per bushel. That’s $32 per acre. I don’t know what their service costs, because I’m not giving all that personal information about my farm to Monsanto. But I’m guessing the cost would be probably in the neighborhood of … oh, maybe … 32 dollars.

It could be less at first. Corporations know that to gain new business, sometimes they have to offer a bargain. And typical marketing to farmers says that if the farmer spends one dollar, he gains two in better revenue.

A friend of mine once said that someone told him using 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre on his corn would return yields of 200 bushels per acre. “Then why not apply 400 pounds and raise 400 bushels per acre?” was my friend’s tongue-in-cheek response.

Screen captures from Climate Corporation’s Android application.

The devil is always in the details.

It’s good to see a corporation, especially a corporation that has bought up about two-thirds of all U.S. seed businesses with profits from just a couple of seed patents, not overreach itself with unsubstantiated claims. Of course, in this case it’s not Monsanto, but “in-at-the-bottom” early adopter farmer customers who are setting the bar at 5%. Assuming responsibility – or liability – has never been Monsanto’s strong point, and these days they can afford better lawyers. It’s clear they aren’t about to change now. But in a business like farming where so much hinges on weather variability, 5% isn’t much of a target. 

That’s because national corn yields can vary by 10% from year to year, even more on individual fields that may be in the eye of the storm one year and outer fringes the next.

Maybe all Monsanto’s Climate Corporation is implying is that better management makes better farmers. I wouldn’t disagree. But paying someone for long distance management, even with help of infrared imaging and global positioning satellites, sounds a little like my neighbor’s nitrogen story. Instead of $30, why not pay $60 to earn $120?

I’m sure Monsanto has already thought of that. And part of their job is helping farmers keep track of it all.

If they say I made another $120, then I must have.

But at the heart if it all is the corporate drive to control supply and profits. Any hog or poultry farmer can tell you that corporate involvement in a farmer’s business plan generally leads only to one thing: more corporate involvement.

That’s what I thought when I read that Syngenta Seeds had brokered a deal with Gavilon, a multinational grain buyer, to purchase grain produced from a corn hybrid developed by Syngenta that hasn’t been approved for export. World-wide acceptance of new genetically engineered corn varieties is a big problem for seed companies. Under the deal, farmers who bought the seed signed contracts agreeing to sell grain produced from it to Gavilon only, and Gavilon agreed to take the corn, marketing it as domestic livestock feed.

All this looks like the first vestige of cradle-to-grave row-crop production, where big multinationals take over every aspect of grain production except for providing land and labor, leaving that in the hands of farmer serfs to do the menial stuff.

After once being mainstay businesses on family farms, that’s the way most of our pork and poultry is raised these days.

I don’t mean to say all those big corporations are up to something. It’s just that when a company like Monsanto tells me they want to know everything about me but my bank account number, I start to worry.

That’s because I figure what they really want to know is my bank account number.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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