MoneyBoll: Bringing a Data Revolution to Cotton
From Cotton Grower Magazine – August/September 2016
GISC’s Jason Ward (left) and Billy Tiller (right).
Much like baseball, farming has always been illuminated by data. Take, for example, Babe Ruth. Would we have realized how special he was if we hadn’t kept meticulous records of the countless hitters who chased his records for decades, but fell short?
Farmers have long known the same to be true for cotton production. Keeping track of on-farm variables – plant date, rain amounts, variety type, fertilizer applications – is the only way to impact success from an informed perspective. For decades, farmers kept up with these data points in scribbled notes on coffee-stained paper, filed away in dusty old manila folders. But in an era when the World Wide Web is finally expanding into rural America, farm data is hitting its stride.
There’s no denying that data is the next big wave in precision agriculture. From the tradeshow to the turn row, it’s on the mind of suppliers and farmers alike.
Industry giants like John Deere have invested heavily in software that makes data available to growers in larger, more easily consumable quantities. And the quantities, or sample sizes, matter – a lot. After all, when compared with just one teammate, Babe Ruth was only the better of the two. But when compared with a larger data set – every other batter in the history of the game – he becomes one of the best of all time. Similarly, if growers are able to compare their own on-farm experiences with those of thousands of others, they’d have a much clearer understanding of the forces at work on their own operations.
But as Deere and others have discovered, compiling data – helpful statistics like yield patterns as they relate to rain amounts, variety types and fertilizer applications – is entirely dependent on having a network of growers who are willing to share their own findings. Data starts on individual farms with singular farmers. Asking them to divulge those data points has, for whatever the reason, been a tall task.
“I don’t see how (data collection and sharing) works if the farmers don’t control it,” says Billy Tiller, a Lubbock, TX, cotton farmer, and founder of Grower Information Services Cooperative (GISC). As a producer, Tiller says he understands growers’ hesitancy to share their own findings. “I think farmers would balk, if we begin to find out that someone had stabbed us in the back and used our data sets and sold it to someone else in the industry. What if a company started billing their products off of our data, and suddenly they’re charging us five more dollars per acre to sell us the same product? That’s something that would really bother me.”
But Tiller has long understood the immense value in data-sourcing and sharing between farmers. That’s why he founded GISC, which he describes as something of a grassroots effort to benefit growers across the nation.
“I’m a cotton grower,” Tiller says, by way of introduction. “When I got started with this, look, I wasn’t going to build a data co-op. When I got started back in 2009, I was just talking to my crop insurance agent about how to move data more efficiently.”
The data he was eyeing back then wasn’t terribly complex.
“For instance, I just wanted to look at cotton production off the farm. The way I got it back then and actually the way I still get it today, I go over to the cotton gin and they print it off, I pull it, and I take it over to the crop insurance place and they re-key all the data. I said ‘This is crazy. We live in a world where we ought to be able to just pop this data out and move it over there without this much effort.’”
Tiller was also becoming more interested in incorporating data into his own farming decisions. Like many farmers, he was keen on finding the best seed variety for his own farm, and as he says, “I needed good data to do that, but I couldn’t find a way to integrate a lot of the things I was coming across. I was building data sets, and I was just fed up.”
In 2010, Tiller and his West Texas counterparts had a massive crop, and he decided it was time to create the tools he needed to be able to create larger data sets. In the days before “the cloud” revolutionized storage, he says, he was eyeing servers that could host data for all who wanted to participate. The key to encouraging other farmers to participate, he thought, was privacy. He had to ensure his fellow growers that they would control who accessed their data.
His instincts were correct. Growers were attracted to his idea in droves. Today GISC has roughly 1,300 members across multiple crops in 37 states. The effort grew so quickly that Tiller realized he had to bring in someone who could manage the challenges of such a bustling startup. Enter Jason Ward, who came to GISC as Executive Director after a stint with another successful cotton cooperative – Staplcotn.
“We’ve focused on ‘What is the minimal thing we can build that optimizes the most value for that grower,’” Ward says. “We’ve come and said, ‘Let’s unite growers around data rights, around governance of that data.’ We’ve put the co-op together in order to own that data, to give governance of that data over to this organization. We are a true cooperative. When that data comes in, those growers are protected by other growers in the industry.”
GISC charges no membership fee, currently. Tiller and Ward stress that this venture is there to serve its members.
“We should have the most complete data set in the market, because only growers have all these points of interest – things like the date it was planted, the seed variety, the chemicals applied,” Ward says.
“We’re trying to create a very end-to-end complete view for the grower. How can you integrate that together? If we accomplish that, it will be the most valuable data set on the planet.”