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Land O'Lakes CIO strives to optimize economics of digital farming

Powered by big data, digital farming aims to help farmers grow crops in smarter, more sustainable and more efficient ways than ever before. Today, Land O'Lakes Inc. is looking at how to use analytics and cutting-edge technology to further reduce the risk farmers take on every growing season.

In an interview filmed at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, Michael Macrie, senior vice president and CIO at Land O'Lakes, provided a glimpse into how AI and machine learning are transforming one of the oldest industries in the world and why the economics of digital farming are a critical part of the way forward.

Editor's note: Michael Macrie was recently named CIO at Subway Restaurants.

Is it hard to sell AI and machine learning to the business?

Michael Macrie: Yes. At their fundamental levels, these concepts are tools. They're tools that could be used for a number of different reasons or solutions. So we like to talk about that business value -- what's the value they're going bring to our business, what's the value they're going bring to that specific individual and the company, what's the value they're going bring to the customer or consumer. And if we can do that, we have a richer discussion than talking about the tool sets.

Yes, we may use big data, we may use AI behind the scenes, but the reality is that most businesspeople are looking for the result. They're looking for the solution. And if we use magic behind the scenes, I'm not sure they care. And some of this is pretty close to magic these days. I think there's a big opportunity for CIOs to talk differently to their stakeholders about the end result and what [companies] care about -- not about the technology.

I talked to your predecessor in 2013 about digital farming. Where do things stand today?

Macrie: Back in 2013, we were just launching our first tool called the R7 tool. And now, with five years under our belt, we've become one of the market leaders and the largest distributor of ag-technology (agriculture technology) to America's farmers. We have four proprietary tools that do very well. The tools help our farmers do more and grow more in the most sustainable way possible. And it's been a great run for us in deploying these ag-technology resources. We bought a satellite company, which analyzes all of the [customer] imagery in real time. We project all those alerts down to the fields and down to people's handhelds. We direct farmers on where to go every day.

It's really changing American agriculture as we know it. It's helping them grow more and spend less and do it in a way that's more sustainably and environmentally friendly.

What kind of data do the tools rely on?

Macrie: For each and every field in the United States, we analyzed 40 years of history, and we can tell the farmer what the best seed is to plant in each piece of his field -- different populations, different nutrient recommendations, all in a custom prescription. We beam that to the tractor. The tractor drives itself and plants these seeds. During the year, we monitor it with those same satellites, and we can detect anomalies before the naked eye can detect them and direct farmers and scouts out to those areas to do some diagnosis on what's going on in the field: Does it need nutrients? Is there a weed? Is there a pest problem? We can then take action and preserve their yield during the course of the year.

Do you use AI and machine learning to detect anomalies?

Macrie: We use statistics and machine learning to detect the anomalies in the field. We run statistics across not only the field itself, but the field's history and the other fields around it that were planted on similar dates to detect those anomalies.

Now that you've developed the tools and architecture for digital farming, what new problem are you looking to solve?

Macrie: What we're working on right now is the economics and the economic variables for that farmer. We think we've cracked the code on how to grow more with less, and we're bringing those solutions to market today and next year. After that though, we have to get the economics right.

A farmer is probably one of the largest gamblers in all of society. They take so much risk -- on weather, on the crop yields and on the economic outcomes with the commodity pricing. We have to help them reduce that risk. We have to help them make it more manageable. And so that's where we're investing a lot of time and technology today to reduce the risk farmers take every year and provide them a more sustainable path to income.

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