In era of big data, what role will public institutions play?

As technology advances and agriculture moves rapidly into the era of big data, what will be the role of traditional public institutions?

“This technology is going to move forward — private sector innovators are going to figure out ways to make money out of this,” said John Lee, retired head of the Mississippi State University Agricultural Economics Department. But, he asked the speakers at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association, “If we have only a handful of companies, and only a small handful of people who understand this technology, what will be the role of land grant universities, Extension, USDA, and other public institutions?”

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It’s “a unique situation,” responded John Fulton, Ohio State University associate professor of food agricultural and biological engineering. “The challenge doesn’t lie in traditional ag economics, ag engineering, or agronomy disciplines — it’s now a college-driven focus, not a department-driven focus. There is a very big need for these different disciplines to recognize that they need to work together to be a part of this.

“If these public institutions don’t get fully engaged, they’re going to be behind the 8-ball, because industry is very flush with money to make headway and fill in where we can’t. I think we have a great opportunity to provide utility in the digital space … to build a bridge through these organizations to provide information that’s useful to farmers. We all need to sit down together and become very engaged in this issue of big data.”

There is, Fulton says, “a very big trust factor,” cultivated over decades, between farmers, land grant universities, and Extension. “When I go to a farm to do a project, the farmer very willingly gives me the data that’s needed. He assumes he can trust me with his data. Public confidence and trust are going to be needed to make this work.”

Danny Murphy, Canton, Miss., producer, and American Soybean Association board chairman, said, “We in agriculture have relied on our land grant universities, Extension, and experiment stations to be unbiased sources of information. That’s not to say I wouldn’t turn to a commercial company for information, but I think farmers like to have — whether variety trials or whatever — verifiable, unbiased information to help them make decisions.”

Things “are moving so fast today with varieties and technology that information has to be accelerated to be relevant,” said Dave Thomas, vice president of marketing for Helena Chemical Company.

“Information management is going to drive agriculture going forward. Genetics are getting better and better, but you have to manage your crops to take advantage of the genetics, and you can’t do that without information. For Extension or land grant institutions to be relevant, they’ve got to be connected to all this.”

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