Yesterday, technology leaders attending Gartner’s annual Symposium/ITxpo received a lesson in turning digital transformation into business value from Teddy Bekele, the chief technology officer of Minnesota-based agricultural cooperative Land O’Lakes.
Best known for putting butter, cheese, and other dairy products on grocery store shelves, Land O’Lakes also owns the animal feed company Purina, the agricultural tech company WinField United, and a TruTerra business unit focused on improving sustainability without hurting profitability. Outside its consumer business, Land O’Lakes primarily goes to market through a network of agricultural retailers, with farmers as important customers, but also owners of the cooperative.
“The life of the farmer is very complicated,” Bekele said in his conference presentation. The modern farmer operates in a business ecosystem that includes equipment manufacturers, chemical companies, food distributors, banks and insurance companies, employees, and government regulations.
The success of a farming business, he said, revolves around 40 “mega decisions” about what and when to plant, when and how to fertilize, feed, and harvest, and how to market and sell. These are all problems data and technology can help solve, Bekele said.
However, the information technology innovators taking aim at improving harvests and making the business of farming more profitable have proliferated to such an extent that “market clutter” has become a problem of its own, he said.
“Farmers are telling me, ‘I can’t afford to invest in ten to 15 pieces of software and then figure out how to stitch it all together myself,’” Bekele said. One of his goals is to help farmers sort out their choices. A partnership with Microsoft to develop solutions on the Azure cloud platform is a big part of that, as well as engaging with other vendors that are creating products needed in this market space.
Satellite imagery: One result of agriculture tech transforming digitally
Success stories include using satellite imagery to understand when to water and fertilize fields. In addition to boosting crop yields, this work dovetails with some of the cooperative’s sustainability research. For example, by optimizing when and how to apply fertilizer, farmers should be able to make sure nitrogen goes into plants and improves their growth, rather than being washed away as a wastewater pollutant. Farmers can save money by avoiding waste and improving sustainability at the same time, according to Bekele.
Another promising application uses AI image-processing of photographs of a herd of cows to identify animals that are overweight or underweight and adjust their feeding accordingly, Bekele said.
One fundamental challenge is that even where solutions exist and farmers are eager to take advantage of them, the lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas gets in the way of tapping into the cloud. Bandwidth is often mediocre in the farmhouse and poor-to-nonexistent at the farm or out in the field, Bekele said. One promising solution Land O’Lakes has been pursuing in cooperation with internet providers is working with the cooperative’s network of agricultural retailers in farming communities to erect more towers for cellular bandwidth.
Another way Land O’Lakes is working with those retailers is by creating a framework they can use to create or enhance their own websites, tapping into a base set of online commerce capabilities and supplying them with low-code tools.
What’s the big-picture goal in all this work? Bekele said it’s to “go beyond the cool tech and bolstering the business” to make a positive impact in the communities where Land O’Lakes operates.