By Roxana Hegeman
WICHITA, Kan. -- Farmers from across the nation gathered in Washington in March for what has become an annual trek to seek action on the most important matters in American agriculture, such as immigration reform and water regulations.
But this time, a new, more shadowy issue also emerged: growing unease about how the largest seed companies are gathering vast amount of data from sensors on tractors, combines and other farm equipment.
The increasingly common sensors measure soil conditions, seeding rates, crop yields and many other variables, allowing companies to provide farmers with customized guidance on how to get the most out of their fields.
The involvement of the American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest and most prominent farming organization, illustrates how agriculture is cautiously entering a new era in which raw planting data holds both the promise of higher yields and the peril that the information could be hacked or exploited by corporations or government agencies.
Seed companies want to harness the data to help farmers grow more food with the same amount of land, and the industry's biggest brands have offered assurances that all information will be closely guarded.
But farmers are serving notice in Washington that the federal government might need to become involved in yet another debate over electronic security and privacy. Some members of Congress from rural states such as Kansas were already aware of the concerns, although the issue is new to many urban lawmakers.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Kansas Republican who grew up on a dairy farm, said agriculture must achieve technological advances to keep up with population growth, which is expected to require 60% more food by 2050. But she has heard farmers' concerns about data collection.