Raised on a farm in Ethiopia, Land O’Lakes Chief Technology Officer Teddy Bekele grew up with firsthand knowledge of farming, working side-by-side with his agronomist father. But after the turbulent 1980’s, he was encouraged not to go into agriculture.
“[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 Bekele. When a friend mentioned a job opportunity at Land O’Lakes, he was initially hesitant. But as he learned more about the farmer-owned cooperative and its view of agriculture, Bekele was more intrigued.
“It was super exciting to me to see how the technology was not just going to transform Land O'Lakes but the whole industry and how we will be farming in the future,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I thought of Land O’Lakes as a butter company -- but of course it’s so much more.”
Today in his role as Chief Technology Officer, Bekele and his team are focused on developing, refining and deploying technology applications that support farmers and their retail agronomy advisors. And while Teddy brings a deep respect for data thanks to his training as a mechanical engineer, his team is going deeper, focusing on how to draw out the insights from data that support farmers in their decision-making.
For example, the Ag Tech team is deeply engaged with WinField United, the crop inputs and agronomy business of Land O’Lakes where Teddy previously served as Vice President of Ag Tech. Tools like WinField United's R7® Tool and the Answer Tech® portal compile data from the field and use it to deliver the insights farmers can use to help them focus on more reliable crop outcomes, productivity and profit potential.
While crop inputs and agronomy have been a core focus of the ag tech team, their work spans the Land O’Lakes enterprise, Bekele notes.
“Ag tech touches all of Land O’Lakes and it’s central to how we do business,” says Bekele. “For example, we are in some exciting work in the feed business, Purina Animal Nutrition, asking how we can support dairy and livestock farmers through nutrition insights. It’s really about using data in support of what we call ‘intelligent nutrition.’ We’re also working with Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, which has ramped up new ag tech to support farmers’ stewardship with the Truterra Insights Engine. They’re changing the paradigm in sustainability with tools that help amplify the value of farmers’ in-field stewardship, so we want to complement that work as well.”
For Bekele and his team, providing insights and capabilities always starts on the farm. Far from looking at data in a vacuum, his team actively reaches out to farmer-customers and ag retailers directly to get real-time input on how the tools and technology are performing. It helps that Land O’Lakes brings a strong nationwide network, reaching more than 300,000 producers and touching approximately half of U.S. harvested acres.
“The scope and scale of the Land O’Lakes network is truly incredible, and it’s why we’re able to work directly with real farmers and solve real problems for them,” he notes. “As a farmer-owned cooperative, we recognize we’re in a new digital age of agriculture because we’re living it every day. Farmers are innovators and they’re used to transformation. It just takes a little bit of a time and support to adopt new technology. The new generation of farmers are embracing this, and technology is getting easier to use as we improve and automate things like mapping and data entry.”
Bekele is also careful to consider practical issues related to new tools. For example, he and his team are working on new ideas and solutions to address rural broadband accessibility. “You have to have broadband connectivity or at least good wireless signal to be able to take advantage of some of the tools we're developing,” he explains. “If you don't have that, then the whole value proposition falls apart.”
Significantly, Bekele and his team get a chance to make a real, tangible difference in the future of food. “Land O’Lakes is a really unique place to work from a technology perspective,” he says. “Our technology team is involved in so much practical, hands-on problem solving for our ag retailers and their farmer-customers. They have the opportunity to directly apply their skills to tackle big challenges.”
Happy to be “back home” in the agricultural space, Bekele understands how important his team’s work and the co-op’s mission are for the future of agriculture.
"Land O’Lakes has surprising technology and extraordinary talent,” he says. “We’re on the front lines of advancing agriculture, every day.”