by Martha Heller

Taking digital tech to the farm

May 31, 2016
CareersCIOCloud Computing

David Black, CIO of CHS, discusses how today's technology makes modern farmers more profitable.

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David Black, CIO of CHS

Ten years ago, a farmer may have found the information he needed to run his farm at the local coffee shop. He may have asked neighbors how their crops did that year, and then made planting and pricing decisions accordingly.  

Today, progressive farmers, armed with iPads, can see real-time information on the quality of crops over every inch of their farms. They can apply seed, nitrogen, and irrigation recommendations based on historical yield performance and future weather patterns. And they can do modeling, based on current market prices, to determine how to best hedge that grain. 

Innovations enable ‘precision agriculture’

These progressive farmers represents about 10 percent of the industry, according to David Black, CIO of CHS, a $35 billion, farmer-owned provider of grain, seed and farming services. And if CHS has its way, that number will grow dramatically during the next few years.

“The next generation of farming is ‘precision agriculture,'” says Black, who joined CHS as senior vice president and CIO in October 2014. “With precision agriculture, farmers have the information they need to make decisions at the field, farm or county level. Farmers can respond to what’s happening all around the farm at any single moment.”

To provide all of this real-time information for farmers, CHS uses technology to innovate. For example, CHS offers a new service called YieldPoint, and as part of the service agronomists, or farming scientists, walk the land with farmers to help them make decisions that will improve profitability. “Think of our YieldPoint agronomists as a Geek Squad that uses custom apps to mark field boundaries, collect environmental information, and extract ‘as planted’ data off the combine or the tractor,” Black says. “Using cloud technology, we can aggregate that local data and provide field maps that show seasonal crop performance, weed pressure, and the soil’s moisture holding capacity.” Agronomists can then use that data to talk farmers through specific planning recommendations. 

From iPad to tractor and soil

CHS also collaborates with seed and equipment manufacturers on software solutions that send planting decisions straight to tractors. “The iPad in the cab of the tractor talks to the planter which executes on the farmer’s decision,” says Black.

IT’s role in delivering YieldPoint is, in part, to provide the infrastructure capabilities to manage all of that data. “We host the data and tag it so that it is geo-referenced,” says Black. “We are responsible for delivering all of the software, whether we develop it ourselves or manage the relationships between the software providers and equipment manufacturers. We are the integrators.”

Leading IT in a technology revolution

IT is often expected to start with a business problem and then consider the technology solutions that can solve it, but Black and his IT organization take a different approach. “We started with the four transformative trends — Internet of Things, cloud, mobility and big data — and thought, ‘How do we connect those trends to the customers we serve?'” says Black. “If you begin with a focus on these transformative trends and use them to have a conversation about your business, you will start to innovate. That is how IT can drive a business agenda.”

Black also focuses on the intersections. “IT is the one function that understands the intersections between sales and manufacturing, between the farmer and an agronomist, and between CHS and our partners,” he says. “Our job in IT is to think about where processes intersect and to use technology to make those intersections fast, secure and seamless.”

For Black and his team, this focus on intersections is also a focus on architecture. “Enterprise architecture and business architecture are overused terms,” he says. “But a well-thought-out architecture helps us to manage those intersections.”

IT leaders also shouldn’t go it alone, according to Black. CHS plans to deliver more than 30 decision engines to the farming community in the next few years, for example, and that’s far too many to develop itself. CHS’s development team is working on a tool to make nitrogen recommendations and an app that will help farmers manage income, but it is partnering with another company for tools for seed recommendations and weather analytics.

It’s important that his IT organization understands they cannot deliver all of these new capabilities themselves, according to Black. “We have to have the philosophy that there are best-in-class tools and data all over the place,” he says. “Our role in IT is to understand the needs of the farmer, and connect all these disparate sources of data to those specific needs. That’s a different kind of leadership.”

About David Black

Prior to joining CHS in 2014, Black held several roles at Monsanto starting in 2003, including the positions of vice president of global commercial IT, and vice president of corporate strategy.