Not even the global COVID-19 pandemic can stop industry leaders from using digital platforms and emerging technologies to generate new revenue streams.
Land O’Lakes and Microsoft have partnered to build cloud, edge computing, sensors and AI solutions to improve services for farmers and dairy producers, propel sustainability initiatives and boost broadband connectivity in a rural America starving for high-speed internet access. It’s part of the dairy and agriculture producer’s strategy for looking to technology partners to help cultivate innovation, says Land O’Lakes CIO Ted Bekele.
“We’re a tech-driven company, but we’re not a tech company per se,” Bekele tells CIO.com. “Instead of just using Microsoft’s services, we’re building solutions side by side. Microsoft is getting in on the innovation cycle.”
Land O’Lakes began purchasing cloud services from Microsoft in 2015, about the time big companies began renting compute capacity over the internet more liberally. Fast forward five years and that deal has blossomed into a strategic partnership, underscoring how some big-name companies have grown comfortable co-creating vertical solutions with cloud vendors.
Traditionally, cloud vendors have cranked out commodity services and sold them with a hands-off approach. But under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is taking a kinder, white-glove touch with Land O’Lakes, endearing itself to customers and propping up the agricultural market.
A data-driven agtech platform
The Land O’Lakes and Microsoft tie-up comprises several workstreams, Bekele says. The companies are currently co-creating a connected “agtech” platform atop Microsoft Azure that will bring together Land O’Lakes’ portfolio of innovative agtech tools, such as WinField United’s R7 Suite, which helps farmers select the best seeds for their land, Data Silo, which stores and shares information between farmers, retailers and third-party providers, and Truterra Insights Engine, which measures sustainability progress.
The partners will also leverage Microsoft Azure and its AI capabilities, along with insights from WinField United Answer Plot test fields, to generate more predictable decisions for placement of seeds and treatments, with the goal of increasing return on investment with the entire acre.
The companies will also create a Digital Dairy, marrying edge computing to capture data from farms with poor internet coverage with AI to provide data-driven insights for dairy producers. This initiative will use sensors and third-party apps to collect data streams on weather, feed management and animal health to fashion a sort of “Fitbit for cows,” allowing dairy producers to improve profit potential and reduce waste by feeding livestock only what they need and ensuring milk supply doesn’t spoil, Bekele says. The companies will also provide transparency throughout Land O’Lakes’ milk, butter and cheese supply chain, ensuring consumer confidence that foods are of the highest quality.
As part of the deal, Land O’Lakes will migrate most of its IT infrastructure onto Azure. Having a unified cloud architecture on which to run its compute workloads, including data and analytics, will drive more efficiency, while helping farmers make more predictive and precise decisions about planting proper seed varieties and optimizing fertilizer placement.
Sustaining crops for future growth
Over time, Land O’Lakes and Microsoft will expand their collaboration to tackle sustainability. The agricultural industry has long been challenged by climate change, trade issues and an aging workforce, but the emergence of COVID-19 increases hurdles to production and the supply chain.
The companies will work with Land O’Lakes’ network of farmers, who work 150 million acres of cropland, to improve the health of their farms’ soils to both produce more food and store greenhouse gas, including carbon.
Using Azure cloud and AI tools, the companies are developing technology to help farmers predict the carbon benefits of regenerative practices such as no-till, precision nutrient management and planting of cover crops. Combined with remote sensing technologies and satellite data, the solution will make certification of these projects in global carbon markets easier, quicker and less expensive, while boosting profit potential and generate new revenue in carbon markets.
For instance, the partners plan to integrate these new capabilities into the Truterra Insights Engine to build a soil health platform that can help farmers identify new practices that improve the quality of their farms’ soils, estimate the natural resource and economic benefits of those new practices, generate soil carbon credits, and connect to soil carbon markets that sell certified credits to buyers.
Bridging the digital divide
Addressing the dearth in broadband access for some 14 million Americans in rural communities — another issue compounded by the coronavirus pandemic — Land O’Lakes and Microsoft are also teaming up to help bring internet access to many farmers who increasingly rely on internet-connected grain siloes and fertilizer systems, Bekele says.
In the short term, the companies are bringing free public Wi-Fi at more than 15 locations in 19 states by providing internet service providers with towers, antennas and other necessary hardware to support fixed wireless connectivity.
The companies are further exploring how to bring broadband solutions, including telehealth, educational resources and digital reskilling, to rural communities using Microsoft’s Airband program and locations within the Land O’Lakes network of 300,000 producers.
In accordance with the pandemic’s social distancing prescriptions, Land O’Lakes and Microsoft staff who have a direct hand in facilitating the various workstreams are collaborating remotely, often via Microsoft Teams video meetings, Bekele says.
Those working directly on critical workstreams, such as the migration to Azure, conduct weekly “check-ins” to make sure the projects are on track, with more formal status review meetings occurring monthly. Leaders from both companies convene quarterly to review the projects from a higher level.
The bottom line
The Land O’Lakes-Microsoft collaboration is a ringing endorsement of the cloud as a platform capable of accelerating digital business by enabling edge computing, AI and machine learning, each of which “require a scalable, elastic and high-capacity infrastructure platform like public cloud infrastructure,” Gartner analyst Sid Nag said in a statement.
The deal should add to Microsoft’s growing luster in the public cloud market, where its 18 percent market share ranks a distant second to that of Amazon Web Services, which commands a 45 percent share, according to Gartner.