An Airbnb For Farmland Hits A Snag, As Farmers Raise Data Privacy Concerns | WGLT

An Airbnb For Farmland Hits A Snag, As Farmers Raise Data Privacy Concerns

Feb 24, 2020
Originally published on February 24, 2020 10:38 am

Parker Smith grows corn and soybeans on land near Champaign, Ill., together with his father and uncle. But Smith Farms doesn't own most of the land it uses. "About 75 percent of what we farm is rented ground," he says.

This is common. Across the Midwest, about half of all the farmland is owned by landlords who live somewhere else. Farmers compete to rent that land. "There's only so much ground, and most of the farmers out there want more, so obviously it gets pretty competitive," Smith says.

These farmer-landowner relationships can last for decades. They sometimes feel personal. So Smith was pretty upset when he heard that a company had sent letters to his landlords a few months ago, offering cash up front to rent the land that he's been farming.

The letters came from a company called Tillable, based in Chicago. It's backed by venture capital.

Corbett Kull, Tillable's CEO, says that his company sent out thousands of these letters to landowners. "A lot" of them took the offer, he says. His company will take that land and list it on its website as available to rent. It'll take bids from farmers and then sublet it.

American farmers spend about $32 billion each year to rent land, and Kull thinks Tillable could be farmland's AirBnB or Zillow. "This is one of the beauties of digital marketplaces, where you can bring two parties together that otherwise might never meet," he says.

Those letters to landowners, though, got a lot of farmers very angry. "They're reaching out to our landlords, that we have relationships with, to sort of go behind the farmer's back" and break up those relationships, Smith says.

Smith admits that this kind of thing does happen among farmers competing for land. But another factor played a big role in farmers' reaction. It's an unproven, very Internet-era suspicion about data and privacy.

Parker Smith, like a lot of farmers, uses equipment that automatically collects all kinds of data about his operations — like how much fertilizer he applies and how much grain he harvests from each small piece of each field. He pays a company called the Climate Corporation to manage that data and help him understand it.

Last fall, though, the Climate Corporation and Tillable announced a partnership. And after Smith learned about Tillable's letters to landowners, Smith had to wonder: Did Tillable target specific landlords because it got access to data about how productive and profitable their land is?

If someone had his data, Smith says, "they would know yields; they'd be able to roughly figure out how much money a guy was making."

Just over a week ago, Tillable, the company that's trying to use the Internet to disrupt farming, was itself disrupted by farmers on the Internet. Farmers on Twitter started sharing suspicions about the Tillable-Climate Corporation partnership. They accused the two companies of trafficking in farmer data.

Corbett Kull denies this. The accusations "were absolutely false," he says. "We had never accessed the data from Climate [Corporation]."

Yet the storm on social media forced the two companies to announce that they were cancelling their partnership.

Kull says this is not a major blow to Tillable's plans to expand. But the controversy could have one lasting effect. Parker Smith says that he never worried about his farm data before, and who might be able to to see it. Now, he and a lot of other farmers probably will.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

An Internet startup company is trying to be a kind of Airbnb for farmland, but the company hit a snag recently, an uproar on social media - outrage on farmer Twitter. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Parker Smith grows corn and soybeans on land near Champaign, Ill., together with his father and uncle. But they don't own most of that land.

PARKER SMITH: About 75% of what we farm is rented ground.

CHARLES: Across the Midwest, half of all farmland is owned by landlords who live somewhere else, and farmers compete to rent that land.

SMITH: There's only so much ground, and most of the farmers out there want more. So obviously, it's - it gets pretty competitive and stuff.

CHARLES: These farmer-landowner relationships can last for decades. They sometimes feel personal. So Smith was pretty upset when he heard this past winter about a company that was sending letters to his landlords offering cash upfront to rent that land. The letters came from a company called Tillable, based in Chicago, backed by venture capital. I called them up.

CORBETT KULL: My name is Corbett Kull. I'm CEO of Tillable.

CHARLES: So how many offers like this do you make?

KULL: Several thousand.

CHARLES: How many people took you up on it?

KULL: A whole lot (laughter).

CHARLES: Tillable will take that land and list it on its site as available to rent. It'll take bids from farmers and then sublet it. The rental market for farmland is huge - $32 billion a year. And Kull thinks Tillable could be farmland's Airbnb or Zillow.

KULL: This is one of the beauties of digital marketplaces, where you can bring two parties together that might otherwise never meet.

CHARLES: Those letters to landowners, though, got a lot of farmers very angry for several reasons. Here's Parker Smith, the farmer in Illinois.

SMITH: They're reaching out to our landlords that we have relationships with to sort of go behind the farmer's back.

CHARLES: And break up that relationship. Now, this kind of thing does happen among farmers competing for land, but there was a new factor in this case - an unproven, very Internet-era suspicion about data and privacy. You see, Parker Smith, like a lot of farmers, uses equipment that automatically collects all kinds of data about his farm, like how much grain he harvests from each small square of each field. He pays a company called The Climate Corporation to manage that data, help him understand it.

Well, last fall, Tillable and the Climate Corporation announced a partnership, which makes Smith wonder - did Tillable target his land because it got access to data about how productive and profitable it is?

SMITH: They would know yields. They'd be able to roughly figure how much money a guy is making.

CHARLES: Just over a week ago, Tillable - the company that's trying to use the Internet to disrupt farming - was itself disrupted, by farmers on the Internet. They started raising suspicions on Twitter about the Tillable-Climate Corporation partnership. They accused the two companies of trafficking in farmer data, which Corbett Kull denies.

KULL: They were absolutely false in this case. We had never accessed the data from Climate.

CHARLES: But the storm on social media forced The Climate Corporation and Tillable to announce they were canceling their partnership. Tillable says this is not a major blow to its business plans, but the controversy could have one lasting effect. Parker Smith says he never worried about his farm data before - who gets to see it. Now, he says, he and a lot of other farmers probably will.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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