Land O’Lakes and Microsoft Corp announced earlier this summer that they have forged a multiyear strategic alliance to pioneer new innovations for food production, enhance traceability, expand on-farm sustainability practices and increase broadband and market access.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Jason Weller, the vice president of Truterra (formerly Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN) shares details on the partnership’s three-prong approach, which includes using advanced technology and complementary agricultural science to help farmers enhance their profitability and productivity; expanding broadband internet connection in rural and agricultural communities to improve market access and quality of life; and using ag-tech to improve sustainability with a focus on soil health and carbon sequestration.
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Farmers face unprecedented and accelerating challenges
At first blush the partnership between Land O’Lakes’ Truterra and Microsoft may appear incongruous, but it makes more sense in the context of the diverse threats to the viability of farming and the fragile food system in the US. As Weller explains, farmers and the agriculture community face challenges from climate change to an evolving workforce to limited access to resources that many in urban and suburban regions take for granted.
“What farmers and ranchers face is unprecedented, and it feels almost a time to be accelerating the challenges that producers experience starting with global markets in the last several years, going back to really challenges on access to markets and the disruption and variety of different commodities across the spectrum of agriculture that has been stressed,” which ultimately “flows back to families that make a living from the land,” Weller said.
Beyond that, COVID-19 has strained supply lines so that consumers can’t find basic staples consistently, followed by climate change which is triggering extreme swings in the weather, he added.
“The takeaway is there’s a lot happening and ultimately, how do we help the farmer navigate this?” he asked.
The first pillar: accelerating innovation of ag-tech
According to Weller, the first part of the answer is to accelerate innovation of ag-tech, which farmers have embraced with a scale and speed that he says likely would surprise many people.
Microsoft and Land O’Lakes will work together to create an AgTech platform built on Microsoft Azure that will bring together existing Land O’Lakes tools, such as WinField United’s R7 Suite, Data Silo and Truterra Insights Engine under a “unified architecture” to better identify ways farmers can be more productive with their time and resources.
For example, the improved platform could help farmers know exactly where and when to plant seeds for ideal growth conditions, maximum yield, minimized inputs and reduced carbon footprint.
The second pillar: improving internet connectivity
The second pillar of the partnership will focus on improving rural connectivity and internet access, which Weller describes as a right and necessary utility similar to water or electricity, but which, he adds, currently is limited in most agricultural communities.
“If the farmer has limited access to the internet or only can access it through their phone, but doesn’t have access to broadband internet … it really stifles innovation or allowing a rural business to access international markets, international commerce or even just quality of life,” Weller said.
One way Land O’Lakes is addressing this is through the American Connection Project, which brings together more than 80 companies across the industry from tech companies to health care providers to trade groups. Together they are hoping to provide access through their facilities for free and in ways that are easily accessible.
Ultimately, this is just a bandage and a more robust public investment in broadband access is needed, he said.
Pillar three: Improving soil health with technological tools
The third pillar of Microsoft and Land O’Lakes’ plan focuses on sustainability with a particular focus on soil health, soil carbon and carbon sequestration, which Weller points out crosses the other two pillars.
The idea is to leverage the ag tech capabilities of Land O’Lakes and Microsoft along with agronomic expertise from farmers to find areas where farmers can improve their operations to drive profitability and efficiency. At the same time they want to help farmers understand that they could potentially create environmental credits as a new kind of commodity.
Beyond soil health and carbon sequestration, the partnership will look at enhancing efficiency of milk production and animal care, and directing farmers to better use fields for crop production.
While the potential to help farmers with ag-tech is tremendous, Weller acknowledges many have concerns about privacy and cost. He explained Land O’Lakes holds “sacrosanct” that farmers own the data they create and it will not be shared without their permission. Likewise, he said the co-op would shoulder much of the cost of the program, although it would offer paid subscriptions to additional services farmers already need.
The power of public-private partnerships
This is just one of many partnerships that Land O’Lakes’ Truterra has formed to drive sustainability across the food chain. It also recently announced the second year results of an ongoing pilot project with Campbell Soup Company, and that agriculture retailer The Mill to improve the sustainability of wheat farms in the Chesapeake Bay region that supply ingredients for Campbell brands, including Goldfish crackers and Pepperidge Farm cookies.
“We’re really proud of our partnership with Campbell, and this is about a food company that is concerned about its supply chain, but also understanding more robustly from where it sources its grain that ends up as flour that goes into their food products. [It is about] being a good neighbor and really understanding how to help the farmers in their sourcing region advance their success from a profit standpoint,” Weller said.
By working together, the Truterra Insights Engine revealed participating farms saw a near-zero net on-farm greenhouse gas emissions across all acres with some even reporting net negative emissions. Nitrogen use efficiency also improved from 2018 to 2019 with the average NUE across the wheat acres in 2019 reaching 1.14 pounds of nitrogen per bushel, which signals farmers are optimizing yield while minimizing environmental risk by more efficiently using inputs that can be expensive for farmers. Finally, soil erosion also declined from 2018 to 2019.
Based on this success and other projects, Weller said Truterra is excited to expand and accelerate its public-private partnership approach to drive additional production, economic and environmental benefits across agriculture with the help of precision technology and with an eye towards being an impact company.