Monday, March 02, 2020

Farmers irate after company, maybe using private data, tries to rent the land they farm and sublet it by online auction

Midwestern farmers are furious after a new company tried to rent their farmland out from under them and sublet it through online auctions, possibly using privileged data to target the best farmland, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Not all farmers own the land they till: about half of Midwest farnland is owned by landlords, and 81 percent aren't farmers, or even local, Charles notes. Many are investors, some foreign.

Still, farmer-landowner contracts can last for decades, and can feel personal. So, many farmers were upset when they heard that Chicago-based company Tillable recently sent thousands of letters to landowners, offering cash up front to rent land that was already being farmed. The venture-capital-backed company wanted to rent the land and then sublet it to the highest bidder online, Charles reports. CEO Corbett Kull told Charles he thinks Tillable can be a farmland version of AirBnB.

But Parker Smith, who grows corn and soybeans outside Champaign, Ill., sees it a different way. "They're reaching out to our landlords, that we have relationships with, to sort of go behind the farmer's back," he told Charles.

The farmers already renting the land are upset for other reasons. Some use equipment that collects data about their operations, and they pay a company called Climate Corp. to manage and interpret that data. But last fall, Tillable and the Climate Corp. announced a partnership, making some farmers suspect that Tillable had used Climate data to target the most productive farmland for cash offers.

A few weeks ago, farmers started sharing suspicions about the partnership on Twitter. Kull denies that Tillable used Climate data, but the hubbub prompted the companies to cancel 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," Charles reports.

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