Agricultural solutions vary. A tomato farmer working with a jam processor in Malawi will face different challenges than a dairy farmer linked up with a butter plant in Minnesota. The value chains are different. Local infrastructure varies. Geographic weather patterns are opposite. But, through Land O’Lakes Venture37’s work since 1981 in more than 320 projects around the world and via our affiliation with the farmer-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes, Inc., we know that one resource can benefit agricultural systems near and far: Data.
Teddy Bekele, Land O’Lakes, Inc. SVP and Chief Technology Officer, understands this better than anyone. He leads the Land O’Lakes, Inc. Technology Team. They develop, refine, and deploy technology and data applications that help farmers make decisions – decisions that enable farmers to get the most out of their fields in the form of product outcomes, productivity, and profit.
Teddy also understands the varying needs of people and businesses working in agriculture. He grew up in a farming family in Ethiopia, working side-by-side with his agronomist father. Here, farms were small and heavily reliant on labor and unsophisticated equipment.
“Information on seed varieties and chemistry was scarce. A lot of decisions were made on trial and error, as well as intuition. That said, my Dad was a bit of a pioneer so we he would run many trials before deciding on a product or practice,” says Teddy.
In the 1970’s, when Teddy was two years old, a dictator came into power and nationalized the country’s land. Farming families like Teddy’s lost everything. Teddy’s family left Ethiopia. Though his father stayed in agriculture, it was a challenging time for the industry. That is why Teddy’s father encouraged a different path for his children.
“[My dad] loved farming, but he always told me, ‘Go be an engineer, go be a lawyer, do something else that’s outside of the agriculture industry,’” says Teddy.
Years later, Teddy earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University. After working at Ingersoll Rand in various roles, he realized his future did lie in farming. However, thanks to the advancement of ag technology and data-driven agriculture, his path would be different from his father’s.
Today with Land O’Lakes, Teddy’s team actively reaches out to farmer-customers and ag retailers to get real-time input on how the tools and technology are performing. With Land O’Lakes’ strong nationwide network of more than 300,000 producers -- representing approximately half of U.S. harvest acres—the team understands the value and impact of the data and insights they gather.
“Some farmers use technology to make decision on how to manage their fields based on previous year data, current year seed characteristics and monitoring crop performance using remote sensing via satellite or drone. Others rely on trusted agronomists to use technology to bring them recommendations. Most will use a prescription defined in advance,” says Teddy.
Teddy believes that agricultural data can create social impact on a global scale in places like where he grew up – even when farms are smaller like many are still today in East and Southern Africa.
“On the surface this is a disadvantage. But it also allows for easier deployment of biodiversity, which can give farmers flexibility to cater to different production needs. Sensors can be used to collect data on field performance and build more accurate models. This can significantly increase the productivity of a farmer,” says Teddy. “In addition, emerging markets can take advantage of knowledge accumulated thus far and use that to improve current practices – skipping two decades of learning. With data, it’s possible.”
However, in order to make this a reality, Teddy sees that these countries will need solid infrastructure (particularly broadband), governments that encourage further progress through incentives and programs, and better and more frequent data to equip industry stakeholders to make better decisions. These decisions can accelerate ag productivity, increase food security, and help lift vulnerable communities out of poverty.
Teddy knows that if his father were still working today, data would have been the only way he would have made decisions. Now a father himself, Teddy thinks about generations. Unlike his father, Teddy does see a path for his children in agriculture.
“Application of technology is infinite – I’ll encourage my children to immerse themselves in it,” he says. “And if happens to take them into agriculture, all-the-better.”