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Land O’Lakes Planting Fiber for Sustainable Returns

Land O’Lakes, Inc., started out simply in 1921 when 320 dairy farmers gathered to form the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association. One suspects that its founders would have been humbled and awed that today’s member-owned cooperative generated net sales of $17 billion in 2023 according to its annual report and would be ranked on the Fortune 500 as one of the largest businesses in America.

Land O’Lakes CTO Teddy Bekele (R) with FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton. Source: FBA.

Doing business in all 50 states and more than 60 countries today, Land O’Lakes operates some of the most respected brands in agribusiness and food production, counting 2,709 total co-op members along with 9,000 employees on payroll. The founding members would be further amazed by the astonishing productivity of the American farmer after a century of experience and applications of the latest technologies.

The founders would understand and appreciate some values haven’t changed over a century, such as giving back to the community and helping neighbors, as illustrated by the citations of product donations and employee volunteer hours in Land O’Lakes’ 2023 annual report. But they would need a tutorial on other statistics like metric tons of carbon sequestered, grant funding secured for broadband infrastructure and expansion, and American Connection Corps fellows.

America’s farmers have been data-driven since the first fields were plowed, but today’s world of precision agriculture requires refined accuracy in measurement and operations for assessing fields, planting crops in the most productive manner, monitoring their growth, protecting them, and knowing when to harvest them. To enable it requires reliable high-speed broadband.

“Most people don’t know how advanced agriculture is at the moment,” said Land O’Lakes Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Teddy Bekele. “It’s still one of the least digitized industries and we still have a long way to go to catch up, but there has been no shortage of innovation in agriculture. Back in the 1920s, 1930s, 30% to 35% of Americans were directly involved in farming. Today, it’s less than 1%, yet we have substantially more people in North America and around the world. That is less than 1% responsible for feeding animals, feeding humans, and generating fuel while finding ways to farm in a very environmentally sustainable way.”

Broadband is an enabling technology for productivity today and a revolutionary one for the future as farms and the businesses that support them continually introduce innovations for increased productivity, efficiency, and environmental stewardship.

“We need fiber!” said Bekele. “All our businesses are developing sophisticated technologies, primarily created at our headquarters in Arden Hills, Minnesota. The process begins with data collection at the farm level, which requires reliable broadband. We analyze this data to develop models and recommendations that help our member owners make smarter decisions. However, for farmers to utilize these insights, internet connectivity is essential.”

Bekele and his team have been working for over a decade on this approach, being able to accurately model farming and all of its inputs and predict what the outcome of a particular crop would be in a particular field. Land O’Lakes has around 115 research plots around the country where it plants its seed varieties, applies its crop protection, uses different types of practices, and records the data on how different products perform in different soil types and environments.

“The limiting factor has always been broadband,” said Bekele. “Over the years, we developed a number of unique applications. We had some really neat modeling technology back in 2016 and we could predict the yield outcome of a field by analyzing farming practices, climate conditions, soil, and nutritional profiles. But we didn’t have the technology infrastructure to gather the right data from farmers and get the insights back out to them. That became a huge problem, and it was aggravated even more during COVID. It wasn’t just precision agriculture that was suffering due to a lack of broadband and fiber in these communities. Students were expected to attend school online, but broadband wasn’t available.”

Farming has always been data driven, as this slide outlines some of the many applications touching farm operations. Source: Land O’Lakes

Land O’Lakes did what it could during COVID to help, opening guest Wi-Fi at its locations, such as feed mills and dairy operations, so students could do their homework or people could get a telehealth visit. But the fundamental problem of connectivity remained, with the company recognizing it needed to take steps to proliferate broadband to all its offices and ultimately to the communities it serves.

“We always knew that broadband was critical infrastructure, and something had to be done to close the digital divide.” said Bekele. “With COVID, we realized broadband had to be one of the pillars of our work. I personally decided to get involved in the FCC-USDA Precision Ag Connectivity task force not only to ensure that our current tools delivered the expected value, but to ensure the infrastructure is ready for the future of ag productivity, including private networks and automation.”

Land O’Lakes works with a “cooperative system footprint” of 10,000 rural communities, as it highlighted in its 2023 annual report. “We know better internet connectivity is critical for education, economic competitiveness, accessible health care and food production,” the document states.

To foster increased rural broadband, Land O’Lakes launched and leads The American Connection Project. Its activities to date include providing free, public Wi-Fi access to over 3,000 locations in 49 states as a short-term solution for broadband access, building a coalition of 175 business partners to push for significant investment in broadband through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and launching the American Connection Corps in cooperation with twenty organizations, a long-term effort to train community leaders that will work to increase digital access and inclusion in their hometowns by coordinating with local partners to access federal and state resources for broadband access and delivering digital literacy to marginalized members of the community.

Started in 2021, the American Connection Corps supports fellows on a two-year, full-time paid fellowship to focus specifically on connectivity, with 155 fellows having gone through the program so far, they’ve expanded broadband infrastructure and accessibility in rural communities through their work.

“We are continuously assessing our own facilities and our network of approximately 800 or so independent retailers across the country,” Bekele said. “We’re exploring options to extend fiber to those locations, branches, and to grain silos. Additionally, we are considering establishing fixed wireless solutions. There is significant need for broadband across open lands where farmers grow corn and soybeans. Ensuring connectivity on these fields is crucial to collect data and provide farmers with key insights to optimize their yields.

Broadband connectivity plays a key role across all four Land O’Lakes business lines of Crop Inputs & Insights, Animal Nutrition, Dairy Foods, and Truterra. Farmer insight models for crop insights use a lot of different technological tools, including IoT sensors, remote sensing using satellite and drone data, and AI to sort through all the information. The generated insights make recommendations on what type of seeds to plant and when and how much crop protection needs to be applied, depending on the condition of the soil, crops, and presence of disease or insects.

The animal nutrition business buys crops like corn and soybean and then blends them into optimized feeds for farm animals such as chickens, cows, horses, goats, and pigs. “Our formulations of macro and micro ingredients are based on deep scientific research designed to optimize the performance and health of the animals.” Bekele said. “In addition to the research, we also have technology deployed in different operations to gather data back from sensors and quickly adjust recommendations to adapt to the needs of the animals.”

Lan O’Lakes insight models are build using real-world data collection from hundreds of test fields around the country. Source: Land O’Lakes

Many are familiar with Land O’Lakes Dairy Foods, with its butter and cheese available at supermarkets across the country. “Our dairy producers are part of our cooperative system, we buy all the milk they produce, and then turn it into the products you’ll find in the store,” said Bekele. “We have over 1,200 dairy producers in the network across the country.”

Truterra, the ag sustainability business of Land O’Lakes, works with farmers and their ag retailers to offer consultation, tools and solutions to help improve the environmental impact of agricultural production. They exists to create market opportunities for farmers and ag retailers, and they do that by helping them adopt practices that benefit their operation from an environmental standpoint, while also making good agronomic and economic decisions.

“As a cooperative, it’s our mission to ensure that the row crop farmers’ in our network are not only productive with the insights we deliver, but to also help them leave the soil in a better condition than when they started farming,” said Bekele. “We can advise them on the best products to purchase as well as the most relevant and sustainable practices to employ such as cover cropping and tilling methods to preserve more minerals in the ground and ensure the soil is healthier with less water runoff. At the end of the day, if they follow these recommendations, they will sequester carbon into the ground and get compensated for it in the form of carbon credits. They will also have access and control over their own data to better understand their fields and the health of their soil.”

Land O’Lakes’ “nirvana dream,” as Bekele described it, is to see all 10,000 rural communities in its service footprint fully connected to reliable broadband. “The primary advantage of fiber is that it offers the highest bandwidth available, making it optimal for delivering broadband to homes and communities. It’s proven technology. It’s high speed. And it can scale quickly.”

Bekele concedes that there are challenges in the distances involved in connecting rural farms with fiber, but other broadband alternatives are less capable in how they perform and what they deliver. “I know that there’s a lot of fixed wireless solutions being used,” Bekele said. “However, terrain, weather, and population density could all have an impact on the quality of broadband delivered, whereas fiber really doesn’t have those issues.

“Satellite is an effective solution in extremely remote areas. However, in communities with 4,000 to 5,000 residents using the same spectrum or bandwidth, it can lead to problems. Higher user density can cause latency issues, making it difficult to achieve the necessary connection or throughput.”

Having available bandwidth and the low-latency that fiber delivers are necessary for many of the solutions Land O’Lakes is deploying, especially data-rich applications when farmers are uploading data to complicated models for insights and downloading satellite imagery to assess the health of crops.

Truterra provides a data platform for farmers to monitor and monetize their sustainability practices. Source: Land O’Lakes

Bekele has seen firsthand how the best-designed precision agriculture software can come to a grinding halt for lack of a good connection. “In 2018, I remember traveling to see a farmer to showcase a ground-breaking crop-modeling application we had just developed using satellite imagery. I was so excited. I sat at the farmer’s kitchen table and tried to launch the tool. After the logo page, the application just kept spinning and spinning telling me it was loading. After a while, the gentleman smiled and said: ‘I guess it’s not working today.’ And I replied, ‘I know it works, it’s just not working here!’ I closed the device and then we had coffee and pie.”

High-speed connectivity and data-driven farming is especially important as today’s farmers and their customers are increasingly more concerned about environmental issues. “The ultimate goal is to have every field connected and data streaming from the field and the equipment,” Bekele stated. “As an input and recommendation provider, I want to process that data and deliver recommendations to help those farmers be more productive as well as environmentally sustainable with optimized water usage and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”

Food manufacturers downstream from the farmer want to know how the grain is produced so they can meet the preferences of the grocery store shopper, such as organically produced or foods that have less gluten and or more protein. Bekele expects that food manufacturers will highlight products that use less carbon and water in their creation. Outside the supermarket, biofuel producers are also interested in the prospects of producing fuels from sustainably harvested crops. “Capturing accurate data in the field opens up numerous possibilities across the food, fuel, feed, and fiber value chains,” said Bekele, “If farmers can prove that they adhere to specific practices and meet manufacturers’ criteria, it unlocks exciting opportunities for them and enhances the entire value chain.”

As exciting as these opportunities are, they are just the beginning of improvements to food production in an area that has already made significant progress over the last decade. As more data is collected, analyzed, and understood, improvements will continue to increase. The introduction and use of automated equipment in the years to come is likely to provide further gains.

“Technology is crucial for modern farming, enabling the production of greater outputs with fewer inputs. It not only enhances farm productivity and financial stability but also promotes sustainable practices from both economic and environmental perspectives,” said Bekele. “Broadband is super critical for the food supply, the feed supply, the fiber supply, and the fuel supply. It is now a matter of national security.

“We’re at a point where we’re not only enabling a variety of technologies but also beginning to unlock numerous possibilities. This is evident in precision agriculture, which encompasses the areas we have already discussed but it also extends to pioneering advancements in precision medicine and nutrition. The potential to use food as medicine is especially exciting for me.”

Advances in better understanding of genetics combined with artificial intelligence will lead to the ability to look at a person’s DNA and provide precise nutritional recommendations, with precision agriculture providing the audit trail of how the food was grown and processed. Further precision in the supply chain will also help to reduce food waste, helping to feed more people better at less cost and in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

“These advances are like building a high-speed train,” Bekele said. “And we are just starting to put the railway into place. It’s going to take time, but I’m excited about the direction we are heading in. It’s where we are, and it is exactly what we need to do!”