Why Land O’Lakes, which went 97 years without a CTO, now has one

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Why Land O'Lakes, which went 97 years without a CTO, now has one
Why Land O'Lakes, which went 97 years without a CTO, now has one

For the majority of its 103-year history, Land O’Lakes, a dairy cooperative, has operated without a chief technology officer. That started to change when Teddy Bekele took office in 2018, indicating that technological advancements were necessary even in farming.

Land O’Lakes is a 103-year-old dairy cooperative that hasn’t had a chief technology officer for most of its existence. When Teddy Bekele took over in 2018, that began to change, signaling that even farming needed to advance technologically. Traditionally, businesses in developed countries have seen technology as “an enabler” to boost productivity or growth, according to Bekele, who is in charge of the cooperative’s four business groups’ digital changes. Bekele notes that while the main objective of Land O’Lakes is still its fundamental business mission, “I do think more and more, technology can go from being an enabler to being a driver and being at the center of what we do.”

Land O’Lakes, which generates around $17 billion in revenue annually, is a diversified corporation that sells dairy products under its own brand, WinField United’s seeds and crops, and animal feeds made by Purina Mills. According to Bekele, the Arden Hills, Minnesota-based company is assisting farmers in maximizing milk production, utilizing more intelligent data to identify which crops will thrive in the field, and implementing more sustainable practices by focusing on technology. It has been particularly illuminating to combine machine learning technology with Land O’Lakes’ extensive network of agricultural research hubs.

But machine learning is providing some useful, surprising insights when digesting the data, including geography, soil, and climate. It turns out that the plot 10 miles down the road may not be as indicative of the Minnesota farm as the one 300 miles away in South Dakota. Retail agronomists, who are well-versed in field crops and can assist farmers in determining which ones would thrive on their property, are given access to this knowledge. Additionally, Land O’Lakes is beginning to release a generative AI tool that was created in collaboration with Microsoft. This tool functions as a virtual agent and can respond to inquiries regarding soil and crop insights.

Agronomists consulted a thick, physical book for decades in order to extract pertinent farming data. Attempts to convert the asset into a PDF were unsuccessful in improving searchability. However, using the generative AI tool, farmers may share images of unique weeds that they see growing in their fields with agronomists, who can use the new technology to detect weeds more quickly and provide recommendations for how to manage them. Bekele led a larger cloud bet, also in collaboration with Microsoft. Bekele first joined Land O’Lakes in 2013 as senior IT director and as the chief information officer of the WinField United business.

Today, the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform powers about 55% of apps, up from 30% when he was appointed CTO. Simple apps that don’t need to be innovated right away are still kept on premises, but Bekele says that “whenever time’s up and we can do something else with it, we’ll probably rip it out.”

It has been particularly illuminating to combine machine learning technology with Land O’Lakes’ extensive network of agricultural research hubs. The company, ranked #245 on the Fortune 500, has over 100 research plots across the United States where it tests and monitors the ideal growing conditions for the different plant varieties it sells. Additionally, it has a 55,000-square-foot research hub that investigates crop growth in extreme weather. Bekele gives the example of a farm in southern Minnesota, where one may assume that the environment would be comparable to a study plot owned by Land O’Lakes that is only ten miles away. Yes, that used to be the underlying presumption that drove the business’s operations.

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