Cargill’s RegenConnect partners and your data
A Q&A with Anastasia Volkova, Regrow Co-founder and CEO
As technology enables farmers to take credit for their sustainable farm practices and more players enter the emerging carbon market, the role of data not only grows in importance, but so does the discussion about data ownership and privacy. We enlisted Anastasia Volkova, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of our data partner Regrow to help address some of the most commonly asked questions from our farm customers.
Cargill: First, why don’t we start with a little background on Regrow. Who are you and how do you work with Cargill?
Anastasia Volkova: Regrow was formed from the merger of two companies, FluroSat and Dagan. FluroSat, which I co-founded, specialized in agronomic analytics. Dagan, co-founded by a group of scientists in New Hampshire, specialized on soil health modeling. The two companies were working with the same data set but delivered complementary value to farmers and the agricultural supply chain. We were a natural fit.
Today as Regrow, we use our capabilities in remote sensing, and crop and soil health modelling to enable monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of the outcomes achieved by farmers as part of RegenConnect. In other words, we provide the software that powers the RegenConnect program, as well as providing advice and guidance on good practices and agronomy for the purposes of improving the soil health resilience of farmers and to have them be eligible for the rewards associated with ecosystem outcomes. Think about us as the provider of the software product that underpins the program as well as everything that comes with it, which may be customer support, training, or agronomic practices, soil health, and those accompanying practices as well.
Farmers who are participating in Cargill’s RegenConnect program will have entered information about their fields, location, and practices in our system to complete their enrollment.
Once farmers have entered their data in the Regrow system, what do you do with it? Does Regrow or Cargill now own the data?
AV: The way we like to think about it is Regrow helps farmers monetize their data because our software enables their participation in programs like RegenConnect. It makes the process more streamlined because it enables them to not have to input everything from scratch, to import their data from other farm management systems, or integrated platforms to get going with the enrolment very quickly or to provide the information that is necessary for monitoring, reporting, and verification stages of the program – the so-called MRV.
Ownership of the data stays with farmers, and this is consistent for Cargill, for Regrow, for pretty much every transparent company that wants to work with farmers. The way we use the data is to customize our estimates of ecosystem outcomes to each particular farm. To create these estimates we use a scientific model that is academically recognized in published materials.
I would add that when we think of using the farmer’s data we think of how to minimize their input of data at all times. We know it’s a burden. We know it can be very difficult to collect that data. We know it can be hard in the field to collect data because you need to have specific equipment and connectivity. You sometimes even have to pay for premium subscriptions to access that data if you’re using equipment of a certain type. We’re aware of all those hurdles. We also want to provide easy ways for farmers to fill in those requirements if they do not have these more advanced systems.
If we are asking for additional information we need to be transparent about how the additional data that you are inputting into the model is used to improve its accuracy and minimize its uncertainty. And the reason why that is important is the amount of ecosystem credits, whether it’s carbon credits or the equivalent of carbon credits associated with other emissions, the way it’s calculated and the way we can define how much the farmer needs to be paid is heavily reliant on the concept of uncertainty of the model. The more data the farmer can provide, the more accurate and less uncertain the model will be.
Does Regrow use farmer data for any other purposes?
AV: It’s very important for our stakeholders to understand that we do not use the data in any other way. It’s also important that we collect and store data in an appropriate way. We follow best industry practices of security and encoding. We use the best secure clouds and use distributed systems where necessary. Someone who takes on the responsibility of the risk for paying for carbon credits – in this case it’s Cargill – has to rely on its data provider – Regrow – to provide a comprehensive view of information that was used for making estimates to the verifier. This means that we have to be absolutely transparent on what went into the calculations and what the farmer has entered. We must be absolutely clear that the farmer has signed the contract, that they’ve reviewed this information, and that we’re only using it for the purposes of providing ecosystem incentives to the farmers in this program and have no intention to use it for any marketing of products or any speculation.
Where is the farmers’ data stored?
AV: Speaking in cloud computing terms, we have effectively a cloud server where the program is running and the data is stored in the US. For other programs, when or if we support a program in a different geography, it will be stored in a different geography primarily for the sake of speed. For ease of use and performance criteria we prefer to have the closest located server. We use the best performing clouds across Google, Amazon, and Microsoft in the US.
Do you share farmer data with anyone other than Cargill?
AV: For most processes, data is only being shared in an aggregated, anonymized format even where necessary with Cargill’s internal stakeholders who need to know about the general performance of the program. You might want to know how the program is performing, what are the expenses, what is the volume, what are the locations, and it’s anonymized.
When we talk about the verification process, there is a third party, the verifier, involved. They are getting access to the data on a selective basis. They use the data they need to verify a certain amount of credits and they are the only ones who would be accessing the data outside of Cargill and Regrow.
Since farmers retain ownership of their data can they remove it from the Regrow system?
AV: It’s important to understand that while this is possible by simply emailing support at Regrow to remove the data, it would mean the contract cannot be fulfilled because it cannot be verified within the context of the RegenConnect program. If there is no contractual obligation, the data can be removed.
Thinking of your position as co-founder of Regrow, what is your personal philosophy when it comes to using and protecting farmers’ data?
AV: We have farmers on the team, so it’s not hard to think about how I feel about farmers’ data and the experience I want them to have. Generally the work that Regrow does is aimed at improving farmers’ access to additional revenue opportunities that can enable them to invest in the resilience of their land. What is front of mind for us is how are they succession planning? What is the soil health they’re building? What is the capital that they’re building? It’s really important for them to know that they’re leaving something worthy and good behind.
If anything we’d like to collect less data from them because we understand that it can be so hard to gather, and entering it is not the sexiest job they’ve been given. There are so many things going on on the farm and this probably falls into the night job to go and fill in a form somewhere in the middle of the night. We know that the last thing they want to think about is who should I trust with my data. It is really important to know that we’re navigating a very uncertain space and we’re navigating it together. But we’re trying to do it in the most safe and responsible way possible so it still leaves all the opportunities on the table.
Anastasia Volkova has her PhD in visual drone navigation with the University of Sydney and Australian Defense Science and Technology organization. She has 10 years of experience in academia, business, and software development.