Data Matters in the Next Farm Bill

Name the one tool that could increase farmer profitability, decrease federal spending and improve environmental outcomes. The answer is data. And that’s why it’s critical for our policymakers to harness its power in the next farm bill.

If the fractious legislative process behind the 2014 farm bill is any indication, the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”) and the federal crop insurance program (the current form of the “farm safety net”) will again take center stage. As the biggest ticket items in the farm bill, their prominence is to be expected. What’s surprising is the lack of attention policymakers give to improving the outcomes of these programs, insights only data and its analysis can provide.

Data as a policy issue seems both prosaic and nerdy. But the absence of usable, quality data precludes the American public from reaping the value of their investment of billions in the farm bill. It’s time to unlock the ability to measure the farm bill’s impact and enhance the return.

Data is the currency of our modern economy. While often associated with the fortunes of Silicon Valley, big data is harnessed by companies that loom large in the agriculture sector to create new services and products key to their business strategies.

For example, Monsanto’s subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, analyzes farmer-uploaded field data to help farmers improve crop yields. And, of course, these big data sets can be used, in turn, to create further proprietary products. This kind of site-specific data collection and analysis is critical to maximizing crop yields in the face of changing environmental conditions and population growth.

Despite the public’s tremendous investment in agriculture under the farm bill — more than 80 percent of cropland acres are enrolled in the federal crop insurance program, for example — this body of knowledge is generated and used largely outside the public domain. In other words, the power of data to improve policy and enhance the return on the public’s investment, including improved yields and better environmental outcomes, is rapidly moving beyond our collective reach.

Federal law, agency policy, bureaucratic silos and budget constraints are all impediments to making data available, but these can be overcome with leadership from Congress and the new secretary of agriculture.

Modern information technology could allow researchers at universities to access data through mechanisms such as data warehouses while protecting and honoring the privacy of producers. Changes in data collection and access could save the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) money, reduce the burden on farmers and ranchers who are subjected to numerous data collection requests and enable research that would help farmers succeed and USDA better target its resources.

All of this will result in savings at USDA, increased profitability for producers, improved environmental outcomes and value for the American taxpayer.

Congress is capable of crafting a data policy that moves the farm bill into the modern era while taking care not to trample on farmers’ reasonable expectations of privacy. There is growing support from a range of stakeholders for a commonsense data policy. Let’s hope Congress recognizes the potential power of data analysis as it crafts the next farm bill.


Professor Laurie Ristino is the first director of the Vermont Law School Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) and an associate professor of law. Professor Ristino is also the faculty adviser to the VLS Food and Agriculture Law Society.

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