INDIANAPOLIS - When you hear the phrase Land O’ Lakes, many consumers may immediately think of butter, milk and cheese. But the Minnesota-based agricultural cooperative is much bigger than dairy products; it also embraces technology. The chief technology officer of the 4,000 member-owned co-op recently spoke at the Forbes AgTech Summit in Indianapolis.

“This is a great venue for us to be able to look at different technologies that are emerging at the moment, be able to make connections with other companies that are really looking into the space and want to partner up because I think, especially in the technology space, the idea of partnering together is going to be a big deal,” said Teddy Bekele, senior vice president and CTO for Land O’ Lakes Inc.

In addition to their branded milk products, Land O’ Lakes is also heavily invested in livestock animal feed and crop inputs, including seed, fertilizer and herbicides.

Bekele talked about the co-op’s focus on technology in a discussion with Inside INdiana Business reporter Wes Mills.

”I think that people would be surprised to hear how much technology is actually being used today (by farmers), and how much advanced technology,” explains Bekele. ”Things like remote sensing or using satellite images to be able to detect change, biomass changes in the field, machine learning and crop modeling to be able to see what's happening with the crop without even having to step a foot into the middle of the field.”

Bekele says precision technology is changing the landscape of agriculture rapidly. He gets excited as he walks through exhibition floors, like at the Forbes summit, to see the possibilities from entrepreneurs and vendors. “I am a technologist, I'm always intrigued by the sort of the newer breakthroughs,” said Bekele. “I can put this thing on a plant, and I can see the disease before it happens. Or I'm using an automated drone to be able to fly a field.”

One thing that Bekele sees as a big limiting factor for American agriculture is the lack of broadband internet in much of rural America. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 80 percent of the 24 million American households that do not have reliable, affordable high-speed internet are in rural areas.

Bekele says companies and co-ops, such as Land O’ Lakes have a vested interest in helping to connect more of rural America to broadband internet. But a big roadblock, Bekele told the Forbes audience of investors and business leaders, is cost. “The financials, for a lot of cases, for the folks that do provide this capability today, it just doesn't work in rural areas, which is left rural America little bit further behind, not only in agriculture but in healthcare and medicine, and even social media and the interactions that folks have.”

Bekele says the lack of connectivity continues to stymie a farmer's ability to compete in the global marketplace.

USDA says by increasing producers’ access and usage to full-scale high-speed internet could create at least $47 billion each year in additional gross benefit for the U.S. economy. 

Bekele says when the co-op membership gets together for its biannual meetings, broadband is a key discussion. “We need (as a co-op) to form a voice. And then we need to look at certain initiatives, and we need to push this agenda, whichever direction whether it's with partnerships or the public arena, we really need help in the space. For us, it's a must, it's one of those mandates from our membership.”

Whether it’s broadband internet or new on-farm gadgets, Bekele says he expects to see big strides in technology the next couple of years, which is vital to the success of Land O’ Lakes.

“We consider ourselves a farm to fork cooperative. If you put our businesses together all the way from putting a seed into the ground to delivering food on somebody's plate, we sort of have the whole gamut end to end. And really, technology becomes a big driver for us into that space to be able to connect all those dots. Yeah, and that's what we're all about. “