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Land O'Lakes, Microsoft form strategic alliance

TAGS: Business
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Companies aim to build tighter connections between consumers and farmers through innovative new technologies.

Land O’Lakes Inc. and Microsoft Corp. announced July 15 a multiyear strategic alliance to pioneer new innovations in agriculture and enhance the supply chain, expand sustainability practices for farmers and the food system and close the rural broadband gap.

As one of the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperatives, with 150 million acres of productive cropland in its network, Land O’Lakes said it is deeply connected to rural America and has a unique understanding of farmers’ needs and the communities where they and their families live and work. Combined with Microsoft’s trusted cloud technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, the companies said they will deliver solutions that help farmers’ profit potential and adoption of sustainable agricultural practices.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. farms contribute more than $130 billion to the economy, emphasizing the critical role farmers play in the nation’s food supply. Yet, the industry faces challenges that threaten its viability, including climate change, trade issues and an evolving workforce. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is increasingly facing production and supply chain issues, and many farmers are facing new economic challenges for their family-owned businesses.

“Land O’Lakes is one of the most important food suppliers in the U.S., and our nation’s farmers and consumers rely on its ability to rapidly adapt to changing market forces through innovation,” Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella said. “Through our partnership, we will apply the power of Azure and its AI capabilities to help Land O’Lakes solve some of the most pressing challenges facing the industry and bridge the divide between rural and urban communities.”

Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, said, “As America’s farmers continue to deliver the world’s safest, most affordable food supply, they face an increasing number of obstacles that are beyond their control. The data-based, precision agriculture tools we are building with Microsoft will provide the edge they need, but unreliable or nonexistent high-speed internet in rural areas keeps these tools out of reach for many. Through this alliance, we will work to address this need and help farmers remain profitable and sustainable.”

Accelerating agricultural innovation

Initially, the companies will focus on developing a connected agricultural technology platform built on Microsoft Azure that will bring together Land O’Lakes’ portfolio of innovative ag tech tools -- such as WinField United’s R7 Suite, Data Silo and Truterra Insights Engine -- under one unified architecture. By standardizing on Azure and harnessing the power of Azure FarmBeats, Land O’Lakes will be able to derive insights that enable intelligent agricultural solutions for farmers to be more productive with their time and resources. This includes early mitigating plant stress to guide precisely where and when farmers should take action on their field for ideal growth conditions, maximizing yield potential by planting the right seed varieties and nutrients, optimizing fertilizer investments and ensuring an accurate output ratio to meet demand properly, all while lowering the farm's carbon footprint.

Built on top of the ag tech platform, the companies will collaborate to advance an aggregator of data with Data Silo as well as leverage Microsoft Azure and its AI capabilities and insights from WinField United Answer Plot test fields to support more predictable decisions for placement of crop inputs such as seeds and treatments, with the goal of increasing the return on investment of the entire acre.

The companies also plan to create a Digital Dairy solution that harnesses the power of edge computing to capture data from farms with poor internet coverage and the power of AI to provide data-driven insights for dairy producers. This initiative will bring together multiple data streams — including weather, feed management and animal health — from sensors and third-party applications to help dairy producers improve their profit potential, adopt conservation practices and reduce waste by feeding livestock only what they need and ensuring that the milk supply doesn’t go bad in the supply chain.

Through the Digital Dairy solution, the companies will enable traceability throughout the Land O’Lakes supply chain, providing transparency to milk, butter and cheese to ensure consumer confidence that foods are of the highest quality and sustainably sourced. At a time when the dairy industry is stressed with changing customer demand and supply chain disruptions, these digital tools will help producers improve efficiencies and profit potential while helping ensure that food gets to the people who need it most.

Advancing sustainability initiatives

With the challenges of a changing climate, more extreme weather and a growing world population, Land O’Lakes and Microsoft share a commitment to sustainability and natural resources stewardship to help farm fields be more resilient and more productive for generations to come.

“We can help farmers improve the health and function of their farms’ soils to both produce more food and store greenhouse gas, including carbon,” the companies said, adding that the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization estimates that agricultural soils could hold up to 10% of human-caused emissions within 25 years. “Yet, soils are largely absent from global carbon markets," they noted. "As a result, farmers lack adequate information and incentives to practice regenerative agriculture to capture and store carbon.”

The companies are working together to change that by developing a technology suite to help farmers improve their profit potential and generate new revenue in carbon markets. The new alliance will develop capabilities to quickly and effectively predict the carbon benefits of regenerative practices like no-till, precision nutrient management and cover crop planting. Combining such capabilities with the real-time transparency from remote sensing and satellite data will make certification of these projects in global carbon markets easier, quicker and less expensive — ultimately maximizing the economic value for farmers.

The companies will explore integrating these new capabilities into the Truterra Insights Engine to create a unique soil health platform that can help farmers identify new opportunities to adopt practices to improve the quality and function 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.

“The platform would help unlock the potential of hundreds of millions of acres of farmland to be an effective carbon removal system and improve soil health and productivity while providing farmers with the insights they need to make the best decisions for their farms,” the companies said.

Further, they noted, “Markets like these may help Microsoft reach its goal to be carbon negative by 2030 [by removing] more carbon from the atmosphere than it emitted since its founding by 2050 and help other businesses take advantage of soil carbon credits and the market to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

Connecting rural America

Broadband is essential to fully participate in the modern economy. Unfortunately, more than 18 million Americans don’t have access to a broadband connection, 14 million of whom live in rural communities. Both companies are working to connect rural communities: Microsoft’s Airband Initiative has worked around the country to eliminate the rural broadband gap, and Land O’Lakes’ American Connection Project aims to close the digital divide through action and advocacy.

The companies are launching pilots that will lead to long-term programmatic solutions in rural communities. Combining the Airband program and specific locations within the Land O’Lakes owner network, broadband will be deployed to rural communities, along with services including telehealth, educational resources and digital skilling. Both companies are also advocating for policy changes to accelerate the availability of broadband in rural communities, including broadband mapping to fully understand who has and does not have access to broadband, and federal funding in upcoming legislation.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the digital divide even worse for many people, they said, adding, “Remote work, education and health care are out of reach for people living in rural communities without online access.”

The companies are answering this immediate need for connectivity by working together to turn on free public Wi-Fi at more than 150 locations in 19 states using a mix of technologies, including fixed wireless, and supplying internet service providers with the necessary hardware.

Land O’Lakes to transition to Microsoft platforms

Through the agreement, Microsoft becomes the strategic cloud provider for Land O’Lakes, and Land O’Lakes will migrate the majority of its information technology infrastructure onto Microsoft Azure. Land O'Lakes has enabled Microsoft 365 and Teams for its workforce, empowering them with next-generation digital experience technology for increased productivity, advanced security, internal collaboration and customer engagement.

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