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Robert Walker: Agriculture and the internet of things

October 20, 2017

Luther:                        Robert Walker is CEO of Ireland-based KEENAN, an Alltech agri-brand and a pioneer in the internet of things for the farm. A KEENAN specialty is finding ways to pair its range of machinery with innovative digital technologies. Thank you for joining us.

Robert:                        Hi. Thanks.

Luther:                        Let’s start with defining “the internet of things.” What is it?

Robert:                        So, the internet of things is literally the future, where we have all the things that surround us connected via devices or connected to the internet. So, you have a connection between people and things, things and things, and people and people.

Luther:                        What would you say is the future of the internet of things?

Robert:                        There is a predicted spend on the internet of things of somewhere around $7 trillion to set up the infrastructure. So, it’s certainly a “big dollar” future, but it means that our houses, our cars, our cities, our environment are all going to become smarter.

                                    As Google chairman Eric Schmidt said, the internet is literally going to vanish all around us as the internet becomes integrated with our day-to-day lives. So, the world as we know it will become the internet, and we won’t be interacting with the internet in the same way as we have up until now.

Luther:                        In what ways is the internet of things reaching the farm?

Robert:                        Up until now, the internet of things has mostly been focused on houses — smart homes, smart cities and wearables — we all know the wearable technology we can have in our exercise watches. But there’s been very little focus on the farming side of smart tech. However, smart farming is really the area that is probably the most exciting for most tech companies. There are companies like Intel, Vodaphone and IBM clamoring to try and get into the ag-tech space because there are literally so many things in agriculture that can be connected. The gains that you can have from agriculture are just massive.

Luther:                        KEENAN has been a leader in this space and ahead of its time. Tell us how KEENAN can capitalize on the internet of things.

Robert:                        We’re used as a bit of a poster child for the internet of things now, I think, because we were one of the first to innovate in that space. But what we’ve done practically — let’s just get down to practicalities here — we have a device in the side of our mixer wagon — our mixer wagon mixes a total mixed ration (TMR) diet — that device weighs or collects the data from the weigh cells of the wagon and the number of revolutions that that mixer wagon goes through. In other words, it knows how much feed has been put in the wagon and how processed the TMR is in that wagon. It then transmits that data via the cloud to a hub in Ireland — we also have other hubs being set up currently — and algorithms in that hub determine if we’ve overfed or over-processed that TMR. There’s a tolerance set in those algorithms that notifies a team of nutritionists if the machine has deviated from what it was supposed to have done.

                                    We can then immediately contact the farmer and tell the farmer what happened, or go directly to the machine and make adjustments in real time. The most exciting part is that we have the data from what was supposed to have been fed and the actual performance results. We can then provide real insights to that farm to help them improve productivity. At the end of the day, productivity is what it’s all about.

                                    The KEENAN system is designed to improve efficiency. By efficiency, I mean that we can get the same amount of milk or beef from less feed, or more milk and beef from the same amount of feed. So, it’s about having efficient farms, which obviously drives the profitability of farmers.

Luther:                        When Alltech acquired KEENAN in 2016, you became the CEO. What have you learned in the last year with KEENAN?

Robert:                        First, that ag-tech is going to profoundly change your business model. You see some of the business models — for example, John Deere — where what they sell today is vastly different from what they were selling maybe five or 10 years ago. They are now selling bundled packages of technology and machine. They are selling performance. They’re not just selling steel anymore. We are doing the same. We have started selling a machine paired with technology and a consumable. That consumable is high-value nutrition. By pairing machine, technology and nutrition, we’re basically able to perform better on the farm.

                                    The second thing I’ve noticed in my year at KEENAN is that ag-tech is growing a lot faster than people think. We assume a lot of what we see at conferences are for the future. But those technologies are actually here today. Today, there are big changes. Google had their conference in San Francisco this week. Some of the things they launched were just mind-blowing. Those technologies are already here and can be used today on the farm. That’s very exciting.  

Luther:                        Expanding upon that: What is your realistic view for the future of the farm?

Robert:                        The farmer of the future is going to be connected via smart devices that are capable of gathering data, which can be analyzed and provide unique insights. There are two scenarios: The first is that these devices get so smart that we no longer need a nutritionist and agronomist to help us interpret it. I’m of a different opinion: I think that the more data we have — the more information and insights we have — the more we need people to help us interpret those results — or at least people to interpret how to put those algorithms in place.

                                    The smartphone of the future is a connection between animal, farmer, crop and experts. All are connected via the web and all are able to provide unique insights from analyzing huge amounts of data to improve profitability. At the end of the day, why would we do it if it wasn’t about profitability and productivity?

Luther:                        You state that we are in the midst of an agricultural revolution. What do you mean by that?

Robert:                        What I mean by that is that there have been three agricultural revolutions: The first was domestication of animals and crops. The second was the industrial era, when we went into mechanization, plant protection, products, fertilizers and agrichemicals as we know them today. This third era is one in which we’re using multiple devices — technologies — to leverage the data generated on the farm. That allows us to produce more from every acre of farmland and produce more from every animal.

Luther:                        You described data as the new electricity. What do you mean by that analogy?

Robert:                        When electricity was discovered, it was absolutely revolutionary; it changed everything. Electricity changed the way in which we live. It brought about heating, cooling, lights and so on. It was truly a transformative technology. The same thing is happening with data and ag technology. It is going to completely revolutionize how we operate on the farm, how we tend our crops and how we tend our animals. That is going to have a transformative effect on how we profit off those animals. It will be transformative to the way in which we operate and, of course, how we feed the world and nourish the population.

Luther:                        What are the benefits to a farmer of tapping into cloud-based tools?

Robert:                        The fundamental benefits are productivity, profitability, convenience and speed. For me, it’s got to be about the productivity and profitability piece because if it’s not going to be beneficial to a farmer’s bottom line, he’s not going to want to do it. There are a lot of technologies out there that possibly need to be improved upon to show benefit, but there are also a lot of technologies out there that are already showing massive improvements in productivity and profitability.

                                    Those technologies really need to be looked at quickly by farmers. They need to be adopted quickly. Farmers really need to be embracing this new era. It is sometimes difficult because there is so much coming at them — so many apps, so much data, so many people trying to sell them things. But, wading through all of that, there are real jewels within ag- tech that can transform a farmer’s bottom line within days.

Luther:                        Given recent cyber events, are there any concerns regarding security of cloud-based tools or the internet of things?

Robert:                        There absolutely are major concerns about security, and that’s an area that I believe needs to be worked on at great length. It’s something that concerns us, and we take it very seriously. We invest in the best technologies for our system, and we’d expect the same from other reputable vendors. There’s a lot of work that needs to be happening and is happening from the big companies out there like the Googles and the IBMs.

                                    Even from our perspective, we’re very vigilant and believe that it is vital that we protect our farmers’ data and our own data, because it impacts food security around the world. I also think that governments are going to get more involved with this because food is, in the end, a major security risk. It’s something that can be leveraged. So, the U.S., as a nation, needs to protect its food source. As food gets more connected via technology, it’s somewhat the responsibility of the government as well.

Luther:                        How are agriculture and food control changing in a world of big data?

Robert:                        Big data and technology allow us to link all the players — the key stakeholders — in the industry. Up until now, it’s been segmented: farmers have looked after their farm; milk processors have looked after their milk; supermarkets looked after selling their product. Big data and technology allow us to link all of that so the entire food chain becomes one continuum. That means that your supermarket can very easily know the traceability — the source — and the way in which food has been produced all the way up the chain. That provides the consumer with many more guarantees. The consumer has a much bigger voice and knows where his food was produced, how it was produced and whether the companies and people that produce it are reputable and can be trusted. It is already transformative.

                                    KEENAN, for example, is working with supermarket chains in Ireland and in the U.K. to ensure that the beef is produced sustainably; that the beef is produced in a way that is humane, friendly to the environment and friendly to the animal. And we’re also able to look after the farmers so that his interests are then conveyed to the supermarket. So, the continuum is vital.

Luther:                        With the rising billions in China, India, Africa and other parts of Asia that are moving into a middle class with more requirements and demands, would you say that the internet of things is the key, or one of the keys, to meeting that demand?

Robert:                        It absolutely is. The internet of things shrinks the world so we can communicate directly with that end customer, whether the end customer is in China, India or right here in the U.S. So, the food chain between consumer, supermarket, processor, farmer, supplier to the farm, all that shrinks. We can better understand what that consumer wants, what that consumer needs, and innovate around that. It gives a lot more power to the farmer and the ag sector to be able to deliver what is required down the line. It more evenly spreads the responsibility and the balance of power across the entire chain, whereas right now, some would argue that responsibility is slightly more eschewed in terms of some of the players in that food chain. I think a lot of farmers would believe that they’re the small players in that chain, but I think in the future they’re going to have a bigger voice.  

Luther:                        How will the future of farming affect the average consumer’s kitchen table?

Robert:                        The average consumer is going to be able to understand much better where the food comes from. They’re going to understand the environmental impact of the food and the way in which it was produced. They’re going to have more choices. They’ll be able to have food that’s healthier and that’s more in tune with their ethics and their preferences.

Luther:                        What’s the most fascinating trend you’re keeping an eye on these days?

Robert:                        There are so many fascinating trends out there, but one that is really changing the way we think of things is the trend of visual technologies. Up until now, we’ve always measured things on farms and in laboratories in terms of their chemical makeup. Now, with digital recognition technology, we’re able to look at feeds and understand what could be in that feed. We know if it’s more homogenous. We might be able to predict what its nutritional value is. We can look at animals through facial recognition technology and understand what their behavior patterns are.

                                    Who knows where that technology can go? We all know that the human eye can detect things almost intuitively. So, if we can do that through a machine, imagine what can be achieved. Farmers seem to have a second sense when it comes to understanding things like the health of animals or whether a feed is good. A lot of that comes from their visual sense. If we can replicate that through technology, I think it’s very, very exciting. So, visual technology for me is probably the most exciting part.

Luther:                        What would you say to a farmer who is apprehensive about technology or about these trends — or change, perhaps — in this vision that you have? What are the benefits for them? And then maybe address some of their concerns as well.

Robert:                        Firstly, I think we — meaning the ag industry — have been responsible for using jargon and launching products that are really complicated to use. So now we’ve really been trying very hard to make that a much simpler exercise. If you think about consumers around the world with general household products, when they buy that product, it’s in part because it’s easy to use. Why shouldn’t it be the same for agriculture? So, we’re to blame for not making technology easy to use and easy to understand.

                                    From a farmer’s perspective, they really should be adopting these technologies and they should be trying them out as quickly as possible. They need to be educating themselves. They need to be ahead of the game. Most farmers I know are pretty tech savvy. They have very technically enabled tractors. They use smartphones. They use computers. They know what’s going on. So, it’s not that there’s a lack of education, but maybe there’s a lack of exposure to some of these technologies. My advice is that they just jump in there, try them out, assess them for themselves. Also, hold the salesman accountable for the results that they have on the farm. If they don’t see results, that’s fine. Move on. It’s not a lifetime commitment.

Luther:                        As with many technologies, there is often a false start where a technology promises to transform an industry, but sometimes it takes a while for it to get to that point. So, it sounds like you’re saying that we are now at a point where these technologies are ready to have an impact not only today, but going on into the near future.

Robert:                        Absolutely. It is happening today, and the technology is ready. There are wonderful apps and technologies out there that are transforming agriculture right now. There have been some false starts. There will still be some false starts. I think that what we’re going to see is a consolidation of the industry. There are so many little players out there that have small ideas that are great, but when paired with bigger ideas can make a better end product.

                                    So, lots of little pieces together make a much better package for that farmer to use and to invest in. Consolidation is already happening with some of the bigger companies buying some of the smaller technologies. It’s in the newspapers every day. And, as that consolidation happens, the technologies are going to become more robust. They’re going to be more intuitive. They’re going to rely on other ancillary technologies to make sure that they work.

                                    The overall user experience is just going to get better and better.

Luther:                        What do you enjoy most about your work?

Robert:                        I enjoy the fact that we have, at the moment, a machine — which is a very tangible item a farmer uses on an everyday basis and that he has been using for the last 40 years — that is suddenly given a new “lease on life” through technology and can greatly improve performance from where it was.

                                    I like the fact that we can bring these new solutions to farmers and help them be more profitable. At the end of the day, we’re only here because of the farmer — because of the demand for food. So, we are, in many ways, a service provider to that farmer and to the feed industry. I like that idea of being a service provider for the betterment of farming, consumers and the world population.

Luther:                        Robert Walker, CEO of the Alltech agri-brand KEENAN. Thank you for your time.

Robert:                        Thanks very much. I had fun.

Robert Walker spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab.

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