November 1, 2018

Data Power and Western Growers

Perhaps the single largest missed opportunity for the fresh produce sector is the failure to coalesce and share data. I am not talking about “transparency” of data—such that customers can learn the “provenance” of produce or other attributes. Nor am I talking about the distributed ledger or “blockchain” shared among supply chain partners. I am referring to the key data sets held on-farm that could be leveraged to benefit the entire industry if aggregated and reflected back in a useful way.

There are many examples of missed opportunity. Take the simple data set associated with mandatory water testing. These tests—for generic E. coli—were first instituted in 2007 after an outbreak associated with spinach on the Central Coast. The requirements are to test the source of water and to test water as close as possible to its point of use (to account for any change from the source). Every handler who is member of the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement or the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board is required to perform these tests routinely. Today, the industry holds in its hands more than a decade’s worth of water test results from hundreds of growers (many sampling common surface water sources) across California and Arizona and is adding to this data every season. But this data is siloed within each individual company and while it holds value in terms of monitoring water quality and meeting audit requirements, its value is limited when not shared.

Imagine if aggregated water data was available on water sources throughout Californian and Arizona; that data could be utilized to qualify water sources as required by the Food Safety Modernization Act for multiple growers instead of farm by farm. Additionally, once a source was qualified, a sampling schedule could be established for multiple growers such that the costs to maintain the water quality profile were shared instead of duplicated by each farm. Then there is the potential learning that might be had when we looked at trends over the last decade—are there “hot spots,” seasonal variations, etc. If we begin to overlay additional data, such as weather and geographical information, do other issues stand out? When we understand these dynamics better, which only can be accomplished through data, we are better prepared to proactively address issues and build stronger preventive programs.

In the food safety arena, a similar case could be made for data associated with pre-harvest testing of products. Many shippers and buyers are requiring pre-harvest testing as another hurdle in their food safety programs. If this data was shared and aggregated, again we would have better insight into trends and greater opportunity to proactively address issues that might surface thorough analysis of these data sets. Even if all of these data were “negatives” that information would tell us something about how we sample, analyze and how truly rare field level contamination is. Data is knowledge and nowhere is that more sorely needed than in the evaluation and continuous improvement of industry food safety programs.

Food safety is not, however, the only area where shared and aggregated data has power. Environmental performance data such as information about applied water, nutrients, and crop protection materials is also very important. There are both governmental organizations, such as the regional water quality control boards, and market place players that are demanding information and data to measure compliance and to make or verify marketplace claims.  Today, the prevailing paradigm is for growers and others to collect and share these data sets with those in position to require it.  Again, this siloed approach limits the potential value of the information to growers and adds value to the regulatory and purchasing communities. The value is in the aggregation of this data and the reflection of aggregated performance to drive improvement. For example, if I am growing lettuce in a region and there are similar growers near me, it is the aggregated data reflected back to me in the form of “average” or “best in class” that provides me insight into whether I am in relation to my peers. In turn, I can use this information to improve my practices or validate my high performance.

Data driven agriculture means continuously improving systems. It is an opportunity for the agricultural industry to work together to ensure all operations have an opportunity to improve individual operations as well as lift others.

To achieve the state of data driven agriculture, growers must be willing to share data into a confidential database that is managed by a trusted partner. The partner needs to be an entity that recognizes that individual data points are owned outright by the grower, and has the ability and commitment to protect the confidentiality of that information such that no one could know or discern the owner. A strong partner would also be a long established entity that is fundamentally interested in serving the greater good. One who will ensure not only privacy and confidentiality but also work to utilize the aggregated data in a way that serves both the data owners and the industry at large. This is where Western Growers comes in.

Western Growers is fundamentally interested in becoming the data repository for individual WG members and others. It is our intent to develop a robust data center within Western Growers that can be used to help growers comply with data requirements from the marketplace and regulatory communities. A Western Growers-led data enterprise will inform and empower continuous improvement of food safety and environmental performance by allowing us to promote positive performance as well as provide information on issues or areas where WG should create and deploy resources and education.

To advance this effort, Western Growers Science and Technology, along with other WG companies and divisions, are working with select companies to provide secure mechanisms to voluntarily provide data and adding data experts on staff to help secure, aggregate and reflect useful information to members who elect to participate.

While we have several member companies currently committed to provide select data, we are seeking additional volunteers and test pilots to work directly with us to build out a specialty crop data service that benefits our industry. If you see the value of aggregated industry data to your operation, to the industry at large and to Western Growers, please reach out and help us build something that works for growers and handlers first—as opposed to just collecting and submitting your data elsewhere and losing the opportunity to leverage its value.