Land O’Lakes CEO: Big Data Is Helping Farmers Deal With Climate Swings

July 16, 2019, 7:22 PM UTC

What role should big data play on the farm? According to Land O’Lakes president and CEO Beth Ford, a vital one.

The use of big data and technology in agriculture has long been growing in the U.S. But the necessity of using farm data to help mitigate inherent industry risks has never been more paramount.

Massive floods in the U.S. and drastic global droughts, like the one in southern Africa this year, have already taken a heavy toll on farmers.

“Many farmers couldn’t get planted, and that means that they have a huge issue with a gap in production,” Ford said in an on-stage discussion at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday. “More importantly, these farmers have been in a situation for multiple years where they have had low commodity prices, they have had struggles in their rural communities, they’ve had struggles on the acre.”

These struggles have translated into a dire financial situation. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the median farm income was negative $1,553 last year— putting farmers deep in the red, says Ford.

Volatile climate issues have created 10 million abandoned acres due to floods this year, translating to about $6.5 billion in lost revenue, according to Sara Menker, founder and CEO of Gro Intelligence, an agriculture data platform, who spoke on the same discussion as Ford.

But to help farmers better prepare for the risks of the dramatic climate swings this year, Ford says Land O’Lakes is working with technology and farmer data to provide predictive models that may help farmers understand what to plant, when, and how. To Ford, the advantages of using compilations of predictive models, satellite imagery, and drone information has never been more important in the U.S. than it’s been this year.

But it isn’t only farmers in need of this data. Menker says that everyone from companies to banks to even commodity traders need this data to better prepare for the inevitable “extreme shifts” created by climate changes.

“You need to have an efficient communication mechanism whereby they understand the real-time supply and demand dynamics so that they’re better managing their businesses,” Menker said. “That will translate to people in the industry understanding what’s happening on a farm level way more dynamically, which you need to manage risk.” 

These changes could even hit food, beverage, and retail companies, Menker says, creating the need for models and simulations to help the lowest rungs on the supply chain minimize losses.

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