The sunset over downtown Minneapolis is gorgeous. Teddy Bekele’s stepped outside on his balcony for a moment. It’s already been a full day and it’s not over yet. Inside his home, old family photos and mementos are scattered across the living room table. Many show memories from his early childhood growing up on a farm in Ethiopia. Their story is bittersweet.
When he was seven years old, a dictator came into power and nationalized all the land. Teddy’s family lost everything overnight. They moved to Italy, where his father sold crop protection products from Europe into eastern Africa. Ten years later, they moved again, this time settling in North Carolina.
“My dad was a farmer, and he actually pushed me away from agriculture,” says Teddy. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to build cars. So, he steered me down the path of being a mechanical engineer. My whole life growing up was all geared towards being in engineering.”
It’s funny how things work out. Today, Teddy is vice president, Ag Technology, at WinField® United, the seed and crop protection products business of Land O’Lakes, Inc. And on this night, he’s prepping for something big—bringing the company’s agricultural technology (Ag Tech) story to a perhaps unexpected stage—South by Southwest (SXSW).
As a Minnesota-based, member-owned cooperative with deep-rooted rural values, Land O’Lakes might not be the first company people think of when pondering innovative Ag Tech, or a company they’d expect to find at the nation’s leading tech conference. But through WinField United, Land O’Lakes has invested millions into technology that helps farmers produce more food, with fewer resources and less environmental impact.
“Technology can help farmers make smarter, data-driven decisions. At WinField United, we wanted to create awareness not only for the farmers and the economists we work with, but for the general population. That’s how the idea of SXSW came up. We knew we had a story worth telling.”
The road to SXSW
Each year, the masses descend upon Austin, Texas for SXSW. This mammoth conference features 24 tracks covering a wide variety of topics. Attendees come from all walks of life, and all industries, looking for unexpected discoveries.
The WinField United team spent a few months putting together Teddy’s presentation. He says the team decided to focus on a topic that’s on many minds and affects everyone—water.
“I’ll be presenting on ‘Uncharted Waters: The Looming Water Crisis,’” he says. “I want people to get excited about production agriculture, I want them to understand it. I want them to get educated and then get involved.”
This panel presentation is one piece in a larger puzzle. WinField United and Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN™ were already working with National Geographic on the Uncharted Waters™ campaign. Through National Geographic's print, digital and social media properties, the online platform shines a spotlight on the use of water in agriculture. This includes highlighting the steps Land O’Lakes has taken—and is committed to taking in the future—to help ensure efficiency and security of water.
Agriculture’s dedication to sustainability and the efficient use of water isn’t well known outside of farming circles. This isn’t surprising when you consider that only small percent of the population has a direct tie back to the farm.
“Back in the 1930s, about 25 percent of the U.S. population was involved in agriculture. Today, it is less than two percent,” says Teddy. “So, how does less than 2 percent of the population manage enough acreage to feed everyone? That's where the technology comes into play.”
Teddy says the average U.S. farmer manages about 50 fields. Each field is different, and each year the weather throws a whole new set of variables into the mix. It’s not hard to imagine how management could quickly become challenging.
“These challenges aren’t new. However, what's different is now farmers are making decisions based on data versus intuition,” says Teddy. “My dad, he farmed about 400 acres of wheat, cotton and corn. He made a lot of decisions based on intuition. Now, he was an agronomist, he went to school for agriculture and he knew the science of plants. But even then, it was still about his intuition. Nothing was documented and there was no technology to use at the time. It's starting to drastically change. Now farmers are relying on technology to help them make decisions.”
Discovering Ag Tech at Land O’Lakes
Much like the audience at SXSW, Teddy didn’t know Land O’Lakes’ farm-to-fork story. He was approached to join our team in 2013. He had some initial reservations. Up until that point, he’d been working for a global diversified industrial company.
“What was so exciting about technology at a company known mainly for butter?” he says. “Then the whole idea of a cooperative came up. The initial image was small, not very progressive. Then I started looking under the cover a bit more, and learned what Purina and WinField United were doing, and I got really excited.”
He was officially in. Teddy started having conversations and kept hearing that Ag Tech was the biggest thing coming.
“I thought, ‘Ok, I've been working in technology for quite some time, and this whole idea of technology and agriculture had never come up before,’” he says. “But I quickly learned how we’re doing all this research, and using all the latest, cutting-edge technologies, from modeling big data, to machine learning on sensor data, to the Internet of things.”
For Teddy, that was his start of the Ag Tech story worth telling.
Jump to 2017, and Land O’Lakes remains as committed as ever. It was recently announced that Teddy will be heading up a dedicated Ag Tech team, focused on fast and flexible work to continue bringing new, valuable tools to market. We’ve created something unique in the industry, a solution that brings together four distinct elements.
First, we offer agronomic insights through our decision ag suite of tools. The insights, gathered from our Answer Plots® (think of them as living laboratories), are then combined with crop tissue sample analysis, satellite imagery and modeling algorithms to deliver expert recommendations and more.
Next, we complement our tools by reviewing best-in-class precision ag technology in the market through the AnswerTech.com program. We share the findings through news, app reviews and expert analysis by creating a farmer’s report of ag technology.
For all that data, you need proper and secure storage, which we offer through the Data Silo mobile app, a safe place and unique experience which allows connectivity of farmer's field data with the decision and precision ag tools available on AnswerTech.com.
Finally, we offer a complete digital brand experience focused on engagement through the ATLAS web portal. This helps us bring insights to farmers, while creating and maintaining strong relationships.
“We’ve been working on Ag Tech for over seven years, and we believe we’re on the cusp of mass adoption,” says Mike Macrie, SVP and CIO, Land O’Lakes, Inc. “SXSW gives us a forum and an opportunity to show the world how Land O’Lakes is helping farmers produce more with less, in the most sustainable way possible.”
Taking the SXSW stage
It’s a rainy day in Austin. The streets have been flooding off and on all morning, but that hasn’t kept the SXSW crowds back. It’s almost 3:30, show time, and people are still filtering into the ballroom at the Driskill Hotel.
Teddy is waiting in the greenroom backstage. He’s decided to close his presentation with a letter from his father.
“I think he'd be very proud,” says Teddy. “Agriculture was almost a rediscovery of my past. You know when I went to college, the whole goal was to stay away from agriculture. That came from my dad and the struggles I saw him going through throughout life. But now that I'm back in it, and really leveraging some of the things I've learned over the past 16 years in technology and engineering and applying that to agriculture, it is truly something that inspires me every day.”