A conversation with Lindsey Cueva, Precision Ag Specialist at Frenchman Valley Coop
Marcelo De Santis, Chief Digital Officer at Thoughtworks North America welcomes Lindsey Cueva, Precision Ag Specialist at Frenchman Valley Coop to this episode of Transform.ed. Building knowledge and expertise throughout a career journey, emerging technologies in precision agriculture and the next generation of farmers are just some of the topics they chat about. Enjoy!
Marcelo De Santis: Hello, everyone, and welcome to a new episode of the HITEC Transform.ed Series sponsored by Thoughtworks. My name is Marcelo De Santis, Chief Digital Officer at Thoughtworks, and I will be your moderator today. Both. HITEC and Thoughtworks believe that knowledge should be shared openly, so we have designed this series to provide you with the opportunity to learn directly from industry leaders and executives about their personal experiences in leading the transformation of their organizations.
For today's interview, it's my pleasure and privilege to introduce Lindsey Cueva. Lindsey is an industry expert on precision agriculture with more than 10 years of experience in all aspects of agricultural technology. Her current roles at Frenchman Valley and previous experiences at John Deere and Farmers Edge have given her a panoramic view of the potential of intersecting technology, farming equipment, and data to improve agricultural outcomes. Without further ado, welcome, Lindsey Cueva. Thanks for making the time to be with us today.
Lindsey Cueva: Thank you. It's great to be here. I'm excited to do this and share a little bit of what I do.
Marcelo: Excellent. Excellent, Lindsey. So let's dive with the very first question. What inspired your interest in precision agriculture, and how did you get started in this field?
Lindsey: So actually, several years ago, I actually went to school and started out to be a physics teacher. So I went through all of my courses and was seven credits away from getting my degree in physics when I just decided it wasn't for me. The classroom setup or the lectures, the inability for me to execute my knowledge in a more direct and hands-on fashion just wasn't there for me. And thinking about my future and teaching physics just didn't spark my interest anymore.
So I decided to go back to the things I grew up around, which was ag, both with some animal knowledge and some farming knowledge to not the extent that a lot of people do have in my position. But I started out small. We didn't do a lot in the world of agriculture, but it was what I was most comfortable around.
So after I had finished with my physics aspect of life, my sister, who is 13 years older than myself, and her husband went back to college. You know, nontraditional students that decided to go get into the world of agriculture. Lots of aspirations and things they wanted to achieve. And I thought, you know, gosh, that kind of sounds a lot like something I would like to pursue.
And I ended up following my brother-in-law's path a little bit more and veering more towards the technological side of things when it came to precision agriculture. Not so much the crops and soil science part of things, but the technology. Given my generation and how I grew up, technology was a little bit more prevalent in life. Just used a lot more. You went from the telephone on the wall to now a telephone in your hand, dial-up internet to super fast, speedy internet on your cell phone.
And with that technology, it opened up a more cohesive way of me thinking and integrating that when it came to agriculture. So when I started playing around with the displays and monitors and the diagnostic aspect of the precision agriculture in its entirety, I started learning a lot quicker and figured, hmm, I might be a little bit more of a hands-on student, not so much of a sitting in lectures and taking an A, B, C, D, E bubble test.
And it just worked better for what I needed in my life and mentally what I knew I could achieve. So that's kind of a rough aspect of how I got into it. And it was just interesting from the start.
Guys used to just get in a field, drive from A to B, and guesstimate where they were as far as where their next pass was to now their next pass is automatically calculated a certain distance away so that you are planting uniformly across the entire field, and being more precise and a little bit more strategic about how these guys needed to-- guys and girls needed to get everything in their field in a timely fashion and efficiency-wise.
It piqued my interest. Feeding nine billion people by year 20-- I can't remember what it was, 2020-something, I think, or 2050, I think. So feeding the world, feeding nine billion people by year 2050, we have to figure out a more strategic way of doing things in order to be successful with that.
Marcelo: Excellent. And it's very inspiring, your story, because you're actually following your passion, which is something that many people listening to you will be glad to hear. You went through different companies, right? You went John Deere, the Farmers Edge, now Frenchman Valley. What did you learn in each of those transitions? How did you build your knowledge and expertise?
Lindsey: So actually about 11 years ago, I started at a company called Wagner Equipment. It was a Cat dealership, mostly yellow, but they had an agriculture division at the time. And they were using Trimble technology. So I started with that. And while I was in school, that was our guidance that we used on the tractors and the side-by-sides that we had to learn the precision ag side of things. We were using Trimble equipment, so it started with that.
And that didn't last too long, because I'm a green girl, so I decided to pursue a career at John Deere. And so I started at John Deere not too long after that and got into the same thing. Once you learn one of those displays, it's a little bit easier to start gradually learning the other makes of those displays, whether it be Raven or Case or Deere. They all follow a similar pattern and a similar way of getting to what you need to get to.
Some of them take the long way around and some of them are a straight A to B answer. But those long ways around help you learn the different aspects of those monitors, how to diagnose it, because if there's a long way around it, there's a reason there's a long way around it for that specific company.
So if you learn all of those little aspects, then soon enough you start piecing together how the equipment integrates together and why. And from there, you continually gradually learn more and more. Every time something goes wrong, there's a specific diagnostic procedure you go through in order to-- have you done this? OK, if you have, then have you done this? And we hit steps all along the way to ensure that everything is set up the way it should be so it can move forward.
But yeah, just jumping amongst all of the different displays, whether it be Trimble or Deere or Raven or Outback, it was the ability to jump in the tractor and maybe fiddle with it for a little bit to discover where things were if you weren't familiar. But eventually, you find it. Might take a slight bit longer than typical if I'm unfamiliar with a device, but in the end it's all about my customer and the needs that they have to fit their operation and what they need from me.
I like to eat. I like food on the table, so to ensure my customers are able to get their job done ensures that at the end of the day, there's food on the table. So you learn to evolve with the technology and learn all the different aspects that intertwine.
Sometimes it could be-- it could be a terminator in the tractor that's causing all of the problems with the display, but you have to go through a diagnostic procedure in order to either rule it out or rule it as the cause of the problem. But that's how I have kind of evolved in this career.
Marcelo: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. And it has been a very learning by doing journey for you, as much as I understand. And it's very exciting, right? I mean, there's so many aspects of technology in business that are invisible to us if we don't really get close, as you said before, to the problems our customers have and face them face-to-face ourselves.
So let's get into agtech. And you know, you're working on this every day on the field, literally. What are some of the biggest challenges you face when you are implementing precision agriculture practices on the farm? And how do you really overcome them?
Lindsey: Sure. So some of the biggest challenges I face when implementing the precision ag practices is maybe the customer's ready to be progressive, but their equipment isn't quite there yet. So because everybody is so used to the way that grandpa used to do things or my uncle used to do things, they want to evolve to a newer way of doing what they have done, but their equipment just isn't quite there, which is not a huge deal. There are lots of retailers out there, my company included, that have the equipment on hand in order to perform those tasks to be more precise.
But as far as planting in a variable rate fashion or spreading fertilizer themselves, not all equipment is capable, and there are lots of different pieces that go into that. With Deere, you have to have an activation on the monitor and your planter has to be set up, and the processor within the tractor has to be able to compute the implement it's pulling.
So there are certain year breaks that if an implement is so old, the monitor will not read it if the tractor is newer. And those are the kind of things-- those are the biggest challenges I think is lack of equipment or lack of capable equipment to perform those precision ag tasks.
Also, it's winning over the mindset of farmers. Again, going from where they have been to where they want to go. With the higher fertilizer prices and the lack of water-- water restrictions are big in certain parts of the world or certain parts of my region. Need to say that figuring out how we can be more efficient in helping these farmers adjust their mindset to something slightly different than what they've been doing, but something that will benefit them on an operational standpoint and an economical standpoint.
Those are challenges, but most of the time you overcome that adversity because they want to see their operation succeed. So I would say those are the two biggest challenges that I face in the role I play in precision ag. Everything else are small, tiny little obstacles of adversity, little hoops you can jump through that you end up overcoming them very quickly.
Marcelo: Thank you for that. I was reflecting on these two challenges. One is with the machines not being ready, and the other side of the history is about the humans sometimes not being ready, right? So it looks like it's the same challenge, but humans and machines being or not being ready for what's next.
Let me ask you a follow-up question on that. How much do you use those farmers that have transitioned into precision agriculture already to convince the ones that are like, hmm, would this work, right? This is the way my grandpa did it, as you said before. Why should I change?
Lindsey: Sure. So when it comes to those two different sets of customers, one that is progressive and ready, has the equipment, has the mindset, versus one that doesn't, a lot of times the farmer that doesn't have the mindset or the equipment just needs a little boost of confidence, a little reflection of a field or a process we've used to strategically place fertilizer or evaluate the fertility levels in the soil to start balancing and helping all those nutrients work together.
The analogy I use the most is if you have a water barrel and there's a crack a quarter of the way down, and you fill that water barrel, you can fill it to the bottom of that crack, and you still have everything contained. But once you start pushing that water level up against the bottom of the crack, you start leaking things out.
And that is what happens within the soil, that if you are not feeding the soil it needs to, you start leaking that potential for yield, and then we start running into a problem. So everything has to work together and pull its own weight in order to keep that field where it needs to be.
Well, when you start raising some things, some nutrients and lowering others, that's when we start getting that leak out method because not everything is building the wall or building that barrel the way it should. So bringing out instances like that and examples of other customers, other fields that have succeeded, succeeded their yield goal-- we always take yield goals from customers. Where do you want to see this field? How far do you want to push it right now?
And when you show a customer who isn't quite there in the mindset aspect, seeing how they could increase their yields in a more flourishing manner is where they start to revolutionize the thought process and think about the decision-making tools that they have that they're not using and start applying them.
So there is a lot of education that you do above and beyond enabling the new technologies to help agriculture, it looks like.
Yeah. Yeah. So let's get into-- you mentioned data, right? And tools that they don't use or information they have that they might not be using. How do you help these farmers to do some interpretation of the data they collect through all these different technologies? And how do you help them to make different decisions to the ones that they have traditionally made in the past, right?
Lindsey: Right. So when it comes to data interpretation and use, what my typical process is is most people have yield maps. Their combines have yield monitors. We have that ability.
So we'll take those yield maps and see where their highs and lows are. And yes, there are some wavering stances on yield maps due to calibrations or post-calibrations. They're not the most accurate thing in the world, but they give us an idea, a place to start our investigation.
And we'll take those yield maps, look at the highs, the lows, the in-betweens, and start divvying up the field into different management zones. If this pocket over here has a higher potential for yield, whereas this pocket over here, it's a high part of the field, really chalky soil, doesn't hold water or nutrients, we know that we can't push that high-- that high spot of the field to produce any more than it's already doing. That would be a waste of our customers' money.
So by utilizing the yield map where we saw a lower yield, a lower potential, we can start segregating that spot and saying, we don't need to apply as much there so that we're not chancing-- we're not chancing wasting that money or wasting those nutrients. But this area over here that did better and had higher yields, we can push that to do a little bit better. You know you're getting that yield there, so now we need to see where we can push it.
And from there, we start increasing averages across the field, increasing that potential. But you work with those yield maps to do that. You do the same with imagery.
We use imagery to create those same zones on a similar point when it comes to creating variable rates seeding prescriptions and then adjusting how the planter is seating across the field, knowing where to plant more because there's a higher fertility level there, and we know the stand could benefit and flourish, and where to plant less like on those high parts of the field that aren't producing very much. You still have to plan a stand so you don't risk losing some of your yield from a little bit lower down that field, but you want to make those adjustments so that we are increasing yield average across the entire field, but not wasting as much.
The same data we collect is whether or not they spread manure. Those are things to take into consideration. We're in the line of fertilizer. Fertilizer pays the bills. But when it comes to the customers and knowing what is smart and most efficient for their operation, if those guys spread fertilizer and they have the data on what nutrients are in the fertilizer-- potassium, zinc, phosphorus-- those are all really high in cow manure, for example.
So if we are going to take that data and evaluate it, well, now we're going to put that as a credit on their prescription, and from there take the data that we've collected from the soil and just supplement what the customer has already done so that we are meeting those needs, taking their data into consideration, taking ours into consideration while being more precise, more strategic with our thought process, our data interpretation, and how we are applying in whatever aspect that may be, whether it be seed or supplemental fertilizers. Those are all things we take into consideration.
And there's a world of data out there. Is your machine running too high? Or when you're going through in you're in a swather, swathers don't have yield monitors in them. They don't count like that. But for an example, as a light example, you could take a fuel usage map from a swather, and where you're using more fuel, you're bogging down a little bit, meaning you had a higher stand or a higher yield in that area.
You can kind of-- and then it doesn't work like that on every scenario because you're going to use more fuel going up hills. But you can get a general idea of where potentially you have a better stand versus not.
There are so many things to go over, and we have to be very critical about which data we collect, and making sure it's clean. And if it's not clean, we have to go through a number of steps to interpret and clean it up and make sure it's usable data.
But the data you get out of a monitor is only as good as the data you put in the monitor. So making sure my customers are trained on how to properly put in the correct steps in the first place when they're in the equipment is how we can get that usable data on the outside to then make those decisions with.
Marcelo: Thank you. It's incredible how data-driven is the whole process, and how in my understanding. And correct me if I am wrong. It looks like you put that data, you run one or two cycles, you learn from it, and then you go and adjust as you go, which, I have to believe-- and please correct me if I'm wrong-- it's pretty different to what it was in the past.
And when you are making a decision, it's a bet more than a decision, right? And wait up until things happen and see what the yield is, right? So that might have been a very big change for the agriculture industry, right? I guess.
Lindsey: Very big change.
Marcelo: So in terms of data, I read that there are some, I will say, farmer organizations that they actually share the data. They share the data about how-- what's the production performance, things like that. Is that a regular practice in agtech? Do you see that happening with your clients or in the industry?
Lindsey: So there are several industry operations that do collect data on the back side. As far as my customers, some of them are still skeptical to give me permission to see data because of all those other industry organizations that do obtain data. But whether everybody likes or not, I'm not exactly for it. I think a farmer's data is their data, and I don't think anybody else should have the right to it.
However, I think if a company works hard enough, they can get it regardless. It's not the way we would like to see things. We don't want to see any data leaks. A customer's data needs to be theirs, and if they choose to release that, that's their own prerogative.
Lindsey: But as far as industry organizations, it is a thing you see. It happens a lot more than it used to, for sure. But we try not to make that a flaw in our program. Try to make sure that our customers feel comfortable with people like me and my counterparts who handle the data and know it's not going anywhere else, but being evaluated and used specifically for your farm. And that's just us as a co-op ensuring that nobody's data is shared unless other permission is given from the farmer.
Marcelo: Excellent. Thanks. Thank you, Lindsey. It's important. Data privacy is extremely important. Let's go back to technology trends in agriculture. And in your experience, what are the most promising technologies for precision agriculture? What would be your top three? I know from the things you see, how do you think those technologies might impact the industry?
I would also love to hear from you, what's the impact not only in the agriculture business, but what do you see in terms of sustainability, right? How these technologies can help us to have more food at our tables or a much better planet or better consumption of water, as you said before.
Lindsey: Sure. So in terms of the top technology that I think is going to be beneficial for agriculture, specifically in relation to equipment is where we'll start with the autonomy level of things where it's hard to find workers. It's hard to find reliable workers, especially right now.
We're just in a-- it seems everybody, every company I work with, every farmer I talk to, it gets harder and harder to find those reliable people that want to come back and sit in a tractor or sit in a combine swather and really perform throughout the day and just do the job to the best of their ability. So the autonomy aspect of things, it might be a little further off than I think everybody seems because there are obstacles and trials and errors that have to-- they have to go through in order to fully implement that on a fully autonomous farm level.
But autonomy is going to be a big deal where a farmer can go through and not have to have a grain cart driver because the tractor's driving itself, and they can unload into the grain cart. Then the grain cart can go and unload into the truck at the edge of the field. There are so many different aspects that that can play a role in, but I think that would be a top one.
The other one is the capabilities within the machine as far as the displays. And it kind of rolls into the whole autonomy aspect, but knowing what implement is plugged into which tractor and having the displays recognize that, and understanding the automatic turns and the widths that go into a pass-to-pass operation. Those are big technologies. Making our guess rows a little bit more uniform and not so-- one is 17 inches apart and the next one is two inches apart. It just makes it a little bit more consecutive and consistent across the field.
And third, I would say drones are going to play a big part in the revolution of technology and agriculture. With the ability to launch the drone up and in two minutes you're flying over your field and you can take pictures and see-- you can see-- more specifically, you can see water patterns when it comes to pivots and seeing, oh, do I have a plugged nozzle? What's going wrong? Because this area of the field is doing great, but then the next tower down we've got an extreme diminishing crop, and we can't let that happen or happen for too long. That's when our yields start plummeting.
So being able to utilize those drones, that technology that we have, fly it, take a couple pictures of your field, and see if we do have any issues. Or see that it might not be a water issue, but there might be a part of the field that isn't performing to the best of its ability where then at that point, you can pinpoint it and walk right to that place and take tissue samples or take soil samples, or see if there are any sort of bugs or larva or anything that could be diminishing that aspect.
So to me, those are the three big things, just the main equipment technology in its entirety, whether it be autonomy or the technology within the cab, and the drones. And as far as sustainability, all three of those new technologies take part in a sustainability action where we do have to become more sustainable in our practices.
Which, with sustainability comes efficiency. It's hand-in-hand with our farmers. If you're more efficient, you are becoming a more sustainable player in the game. But I think sustainability can be used to a multitude of uses in agriculture in general.
The carbon footprint is a big deal right now, knowing that you can put that carbon back into the ground instead of having those carbon emissions. Again, being more sustainable. Having cover crops to help retain some moisture and lessen erosion, that's being sustainable.
It depends on which definition of sustainability you're looking at, but I think all of them are well encompassed within precision agriculture. Making the smarter decisions, having the mindset to be more efficient and strategic, and the ability to have a healthier farm operation in its entirety. Not running tractors as much, less carbon emissions. Growing more crops more efficiently, that's sustainability.
I think it is a vital player in the industry right now, and it is something a lot of our customers are looking at. A lot of people I've worked with for a decade have looked into and are starting to practice reducing tillage methods. Everything can take a part in the sustainability action. Hopefully, I just covered everything. That was very long-winded, but I think I covered all of your questions there.
Marcelo: You did. You did. As you were describing the situation, I was picturing a farmer waking up in the morning and launching the whole operation of the farm from her or his smartphone, right? And at the same time, looking at the data from the previous day and comparing that with forecasts and making decisions on, do I use more fertilizer or less? Or things like that.
Lindsey: I mean, it looks like-- it's really-- I don't want to overuse the term smart farm, because these days it's smart everything, but it's like there is a lot of intelligence that the data that you're collecting can bring to farmers for running a better business and a more efficient one, but also to making a better use of natural resources. So it is an extremely exciting space to look at technology data and things like artificial intelligence and all those kinds of things.
Marcelo: Right. You're exactly correct.
Marcelo: So let's get back to your career, right? I love the description of your career journey. And there are many people who may be listening to this interview that are thinking, I want to be like Lindsey, right? This is a fun job to do, and I love it, and I like to work in the farm and be close to where all these things are happening.
What are some of the key skills and qualities that you think are needed to pursue a career as yours, right? Being an expert in precision agriculture.
Lindsey: Yeah, I haven't really thought about this because-- I have, but I haven't. It's one of those careers where everything changes so quickly from day to day, the different technology that we have or the capabilities of the technology. Everything evolves on such a quick calendar that you have to be on your toes all the time.
Something that for me was a necessity five years ago is now no longer. So it's no longer a necessity. So the ability to be on your toes and roll with the punches as they come in an ever-changing world of technology, that is a key skill to have. Just bottom line. You have to be able to problem solve and utilize the knowledge that you have currently to gain more knowledge. You have to keep using those building blocks you have of problem solving.
Precision agriculture is all about problem solving, figuring out the things you're having problems with and finding solutions to them, seeing the things that you are excelling in, and seeing how we can push it further or how we can take that problem and push it over towards that level of excellence you have in a different area of the field. It's pertinent for somebody to have the key problem solving skills, the ability to constantly evolve with the technology.
It's just like updates on your phone. If you have an iPhone like I do, then they sometimes automatically push updates to your phone, and it's done for you. That's not always that way in the world of precision ag. Sometimes you have to jump on the computer and take a USB stick and push an update to it, and then take the USB to the tractor and update it.
But the ability can be there for automatic updates. And somebody who wants to do a job like this has to understand the ability that there are several different kinds of displays. Some of them are capable. Some of them are not.
So understanding and learning to develop those key skills of brushing up on articles and simulators that companies like Deere and Trimble and Raven release really to help your farmer understand what they're going against, those need to be used as a key tool for somebody in my position to understand the changes that are going on. But hands down, problem solving is the number one biggest key skill that you have to have in this position.
Marcelo: Super insightful. And do you see a new generation of farmers going forward?
Lindsey: That is a hard question. We don't see a lot of younger people getting into farming. A lot of kids are leaving the farm and going to pursue other options. Farming is not for the faint of heart. It's a hard business. And a lot of your farmers are ranchers too, so when they're not farming, they're calving. It's a year-round job with no breaks, no set hours.
And I do see the new generation wanting more of a structured work lifestyle where it is a 9:00 to 5:00 with an hour lunch and some breaks here and there. And in agriculture, it's not exactly structured that way. There are some leniencies, but I think the new generation coming in wants more structure.
And there's nothing wrong with that. It's just if you're in agriculture, structure is not the thing that you have. There are too many moving parts to have a consistent, structured schedule on a day-to-day basis.
My favorite question is, well, what do you do day to day? Well, I don't really know. My day-to-day changes on an hour-to-hour basis. So as you guys very well know, me sending emails, oh my gosh, it's not going to work today because I've got to go out into the field. I've got to get my customer going.
You just don't-- you don't see the new generation wanting to stay on the farm and help Dad or help Grandpa. They want the ability to not work all the time like their dad or their grandpa. And there are instances for that, but I just-- you see a lot more kids leaving than you do staying, which is sad.
But that's why we have to get-- we have to communicate and talk with all ages of people, people that maybe they're retired and they want to do something else. And I mean, it's not exactly ideal to just pick up a hobby of farming and try to figure it out in your 50s and 60s, but it's doable.
And more times than not, honestly, I've found more people that say, we had an office job in the city and we just decided to move out to the country one day and became farmers. I've heard that more times than not, if you want to know the truth. So the new generation is just not too keen on not having that structure. And precision ag or agriculture in general is not structure-based.
Marcelo: Thank you. Thank you for those insights. We have colleagues listening from HITEC, which is Hispanics Executives in Technology. We have colleagues joining and listening to this from Thoughtworks. And just to close the interview-- and thank you in advance for all the time you spent with us-- what are your words of wisdom for those that want to become like you and get-- venture into this new world of precision agriculture?
Lindsey: My words of wisdom are have tough skin, because sometimes you deal with people who don't want to necessarily deal with you or want to do it their way, which is fine. But you have to have tough skin. You have to have the ability to problem solve and roll with the punches.
And it is a fun career and an ever-changing career where a lot of people get in the same monotonous routine every day and do the same thing, and I'm not one of those people who can do that. So an ever-changing career like this was for me.
And I thoroughly enjoy my day-to-day because you never know what you're going to do. Things are constantly thrown at you and you get to use different aspects of your life to achieve and solve those problems. And you have the ability to create extreme success with your customers. So my words of wisdom are roll with the punches and have fun while you do it with like-minded people. And problem solve. Just have fun with it.
Marcelo: Thank you. Thank you very much. I mean, that's a call for resiliency and leadership, which we all appreciate in times in where there's so many, many distractions in the world we live. So look, we have arrived unfortunately to the end of this interview today, and I hope you found today's session valuable. The potential of combining technology and agriculture is certainly enabling a more intelligent, automated, and sustainable farming industry.
Thank you, Lindsey Cueva, for joining us today, for sharing your amazing leadership story and career progression. And thank you to our audience for watching this interview. We look forward to connecting with you again for the next episode of HITEC Transform.ed Series. Thank you. Take care and stay safe.