Featured In This Episode

Guest | Director of Science Implementation at The Climate Corporation

Tom Eickhoff

Host | Ag Over Easy

Janice Person

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- Welcome to "Ag Over Easy," the podcast from Channel where you get breakfast with a side of agronomic insight. I'm your host, Janice Person. And today, we're talking about technology and breakfast tacos. While breakfast tacos are an innovation in your morning meal, our guests will help us explore innovations in digital farming. Tom Eickhoff joins us today. He's the director of implementation at The Climate Corporation. Tom works directly with farmers and the world's leading data scientists on cutting-edge technology like machine learning and artificial intelligence. His unique position fits right between research and application in the field, with a goal to help farmers adopt new technologies that address real-world challenges. Let's learn more about it and hear from Tom himself. Hey, Tom. Welcome to the show.

- Hey, Janice. Thank you so much for having me. Excited to have the conversation.

- So, Tom, you grew up in Nebraska on a farm, right? Were tacos part of your breakfast menu?

- You know, Janice, they were not. Growing up where I did tacos weren't a popular menu item anytime of the year, let alone breakfast. And I also think a lot of it was driven by the fact that my dad was not a big fan of spicy foods, so it was typically left off the menu regardless of whether we thought it would be a good idea or not.

- Right. So tell me what kind of farm was it that you grew up on?

- Yeah, actually I grew up on a fairly diverse farm in Northeast Nebraska. Growing up, we raised several different crops. We had corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and we always had some small grains as well. Sometimes that was oat, sometimes it was barley just depending on the markets. And then growing up, we raised some swine. So we had a small hog operation as well as a beef cattle operation.

- What inspired you to go down the path of studying agriculture, particularly into research?

- Yeah, you know I always knew I wanted to work in agriculture, Janice, and it was pretty clear as my older brothers went through school that my spot on taking over the farm or being a part of it probably wasn't gonna be the path. Birth order has a lot to do with that I found. So, I chose the path to go to school. And I went to the University in Nebraska not really knowing what that would lead me to. And it was about my sophomore year in college where, like any good college kid, I was looking for how am I gonna support myself and have some fun on the weekends. And I dropped a job application into the university ag department, and a couple weeks later, I got a phone call saying, "Hey, we've got a job we think you'd be a great fit for working in the wheat science department helpin' us conduct trials, looking at new herbicides coming to market." And boy, the lightbulb just went on of, "Wow, I can do farming and do research and make a living." And boy, I just never looked back from that point.

- What are the innovations that maybe stand out to you as sort of breakthrough moments during your career?

- Yeah, I mean, no question, I don't think anything's bigger than the use of biotechnology and things like the Roundup Ready® Crop System that just, in my opinion, completely changed the game on how farmers think about managing weeds and how they run their operation. And again, Janice, I'm just using my brother's operation as the example, I mean, they've seen a very significant increase in their soil organic matter since they stopped tilling and now use cover crops. And that wouldn't be possible if it wasn't for some of these herbicide system innovations and the use of biotechnology.

- So when did you make this move to digital and sort of what do you think about digital farming? Where's the great excitement?

- Well, the digital move for me has been pretty recent. I actually joined The Climate Corporation about 18 months ago after spending many years working in Monsanto and Bayer bringing new technologies to farmers through that venue. And wow, it's been fascinating. It's so fascinating to see how quickly things are changing, the pace at which digital is transforming the way people think about agriculture, and the other eye-opening element for me, Janice, has just been the talent. While so many smart people that likely come from very diverse backgrounds that have never touched agriculture before and seeing the impact they can have on agriculture has just been incredible.

- Right, it's pretty wild. Climate has a very much a Silicon Valley kind of footprint with a lot of employees, right?

- Absolutely, absolutely. And you see data scientists coming from around the world, from across the U.S., all to work in the space. You know, whether it's in Climate or other digital ag spaces, just to really transform I think the way we're gonna think about the future and ag.

- What are the drivers that farmers are looking at that really get 'em into digital?

- Yeah, I still think that the complexity and the size of operations today are really driving growers to be more efficient, more cost-effective and no question, you know, if you just look back on the last few years, the ag economy has not been strong and every time you're making a decision, we know farmers make so many every day that impact the bottom line. They're looking for ways that they can make a more informed decision. And, you know, that starts with data collection and understanding what's going on within your own fields, your own operation. But then also, how do you take that information and start to drive insights and help drive better decisions based upon what we've learned from the past and what science can tell us would be the best option in the future.

- What are some of the obstacles for farmers as they're trying to figure those kinds of pieces out?

- You know, I don't have to look much farther than our own house to see what the obstacles are. And that's, you know, there's a bit of reluctance of and maybe just learning of "Wow, these are new tools, this is a new thing. Should I be uploading this into my computer? How do I operate the system?" And I think, you know, one of the barriers is just that familiarity. What's the value? How am I gonna be able to use all this information? And that's a new space for many growers. There's obviously many farmers that are adopting this at a pace, which is incredible, but there's so much more opportunity to get more people in this space and utilizing it to its fullest extent.

- Yeah, I think you and I both know over the time we've been in our careers, the speed of change has become so much dramatically faster for some of our farmers that might not be as adept at digital. How do you stop from feeling really lost in that conversation? So you can even decide if it's somethin' you need.

- Yeah, I think with so many things in our lives, Janice, it's reaching out to the networks, talking to people who have used these tools and had success, learning from others what value they see and how maybe it's changed their decision-making, how maybe it's changed the way they operate within their farm. And, you know, ag has always been a tight-knit community that relies heavily on people you trust. And I think whether that's your agronomist, whether that's your seed dealer or whether that's a peer, I would recommend people reach out, find out folks that have had success and the ones that are really excited about it, and learn why they are so excited because there's a reason the shift in this change is occurring at ag, and I really believe it's gonna have big payoffs. But people will need to embrace it, and sometimes you gotta step out and take a little bit of risk.

- I know part of what you really focus on at Climate is making that information usable for farmers not just data for data's sake, right? So what are some of the most compelling uses for the data?

- You know, I think farmers have always been great scientists. Everyone is running experiments every year to try to figure out, "Hey, how do I improve my operation? Is this change really gonna make a meaningful difference?" And what I think digital has done is allowed growers to do that much, much easier. And farmers now can watch real time, monitor real time and these digital tools, how different hybrids are performing on their farm. "What's happening when I change soil type? What's happening when I change populations?" And the digital tool not only helps you see that but it also helps you analyze those results at the end of the year. So you can really use that information in your decision-making process going forward.

- Yeah. What is it that you think, if you could put your finger on one thing, what is it that draws most farmers into this data world?

- I think it's simple to use and continuously is how do I get all my data in one place? I mean, we know how many pieces of equipment farmers are dealing with: different planters, combines, tractors and having a one-stop shop. One place where all that data comes together easily and standardly. That becomes a key first step in saying, "OK, this is a road I wanna go down because now instead of chasing things down, where'd the slip of paper go? How much was here? what was planted here?" You now have it right at your fingertips whenever you need it.

- Yeah, and you don't have to set up all the Excel spreadsheets or anything like that either, right?

- That's right, that's right.

- What would you encourage students to look at, if they're thinking I'd love to get involved in digital?

- You know, Janice, the first thing I would say to students is think about a career in agriculture because I really believe that what this digital revolution and evolution in agriculture is having is it has the opportunity to create careers for people who probably never thought about agriculture. If you think about the number of children and students that are being raised in urban areas versus rural areas today, there's a bigger and bigger disconnect on what agriculture is and what it does and how it's operating. And I really think that digital bridges that gap because now we're not only looking for agronomists - we're looking for data scientists. We're looking for software engineers that can one, help deliver this in agriculture but maybe more importantly, or even more powerfully, have a really significant impact on the world. And there's a lot of students out there in urban areas that would love to have a positive impact on the world but maybe not know about agriculture. And I think that's the one thing I would say to students is how do we help people understand the impact they can have in ag and how digital fits into a really powerful tool and changing the world.

- Have you thought about the legacy you're creating? The legacy you're gonna leave when it comes to technology and innovation?

- Boy, that's a fun question. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that, but I probably should. I think more about looking back and, to me, it's been a short career. Most people tell me it's been long, but it's been, you know, 14 years in this space working in private industry. And, Janice, just seeing the change. When I started, we were just kind of at the thralls of biotechnology and lots of things like Bt corn coming out and the rapid expansion. In that short window, I've seen that. We've seen this transformation of how plant breeding occurs to using data science and global germplasm coming together to make the best corn hybrid, soybean varieties, really pulling out the best attributes from products around the world. And now starting to work in digital, I mean, in my opinion, those are three huge transformational changes in agriculture in a 14-year career. And it's just, it blows my mind to think about how quickly farmers are adopting and taking on new technology. So I probably think more about that than I do my own role in it, but it's such an exciting place to be.

- And I think when you think of what's gonna change in the lifetime of our children then it really could blow your mind, right? 'Cause the speed with which change is happening just keeps going.

- Yes, and I think you can point to farm operation after farm operation where you have children now who are adept at running iPads and running these things, working alongside maybe their grandfathers who were still using horses or very manual processes to be able to farm the same land. And that's just in a matter of a couple of generations. So, you know, the speed and the change at which we're gonna see this, the automation that I believe will come to the farm in the future, I think is, I guess, hold on tight - things are gonna get interesting.

- I love it. Thanks so much for comin'. I love the conversation around innovation and technology and lots of fun to learn more about you, Tom.

- Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoy talking about it and wish all of the farmers that get a chance to listen to this, or anyone who gets a chance to listen to this, to think about agriculture and how they can have an impact or what role they might wanna play in a really exciting career.

- Sounds great. I think you've inspired everyone today, Tom. So that's a good place to wrap up this episode. You know, it's not always easy to accept change. With technology, it can feel like there's too much happening to keep up. But ultimately, as Tom said, data is just another tool to use on your farm. Not to plant a seed or spray a field, but to help us make more informed decisions. Even though change can be intimidating at first, his suggestion to cultivate a circle of people you trust is a great way to figure out how different innovations will perform on your acres. We learned that there are more and more researchers and engineers like Tom working in ag, thinking of ways to make farms smarter and more successful than ever before, and I can't wait to see what they come up with. That's a wrap for this episode of "Ag Over Easy," the Channel podcast where you get breakfast served with a side of agronomic insight. Be sure to subscribe to "Ag Over Easy" wherever you listen to podcasts or at AgOverEasy.com.

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