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SF Q&A: Jahmy Hindman

Two generations away from depending on agriculture for his livelihood, Jahmy Hindman grew up on an Iowa hobby farm where he raised cattle to fund his college education.

“My summers were spent growing hay and mending fence for my cattle operation,” he recalls. “We never had new equipment, so I was also fixing equipment frequently – a welder in one hand and a wrench in the other, so to speak.”

Receiving a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Iowa State University, Hindman went on to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. His doctorate focused on artificial intelligence, a field of study that wasn’t well understood at the time.

Fast-forward to today, and there is little in our world that hasn’t been touched by artificial intelligence, including agriculture. Yet when people talk about artificial intelligence or technology in general, agriculture is rarely part of the conversation. By naming Hindman as its first chief technology officer, John Deere is working to change that perception as it continues to build technology into its DNA.

SF: As the first chief technology officer, what will your new role entail? What does it mean as far as bringing technology to the farm?

JH: My role has two different dimensions to it. The first is identifying technology we can bring to bear that will solve a customer’s problems to make him or her more profitable and sustainable. The second part of my role is to accelerate the adoption of that technology into John Deere’s product portfolio, so it reaches customers in a timely manner and impacts their businesses as quickly as possible.

Across John Deere, there are a multitude of product development groups that have focused on individual products like tractors, combines, or planters. Because we’ve been organized by product, we haven’t always had the opportunity to think about how these pieces of equipment are used throughout a complete production cycle by a grower.

By creating this new role, it gives us an opportunity to really think about how the machines need to interact with one another and how they can create data that helps inform one step to the next, so we can bring that complete production system solution to bear in the marketplace.

SF: In creating this new position, what does this tell us about where John Deere is headed as we look to the future of agriculture?

JH: My new position is recognition that technology is going to play an increasingly important role in agriculture moving forward, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. Farmers are incredibly innovative. Technology has always been a part of agriculture, and it will always be a part of agriculture. I think the formalization of the role within Deere is just a recognition of the importance of it in the current industry, and how important it will be moving forward in the future.

SF: When it comes to a farmer’s adoption of technology, what do you see as the biggest challenge going forward? How is Deere working to address those challenges?

JH: The biggest challenge to technology adoption today is twofold. The first is understanding how to use the technology. As a company, it is our responsibility to make technology simple, intuitive, and as easy to use as possible, so we can lower the hurdles to adoption.

The second is around the pace of technology change relative to the base equipment it is applied to. Tractors or combines can be in use for 20 to 30 years or longer, yet the technology on those machines changes at a much faster pace. We have to recognize there are different time constraints associated with technology, and ensure that we design equipment capable of adapting to the latest innovations. When you can take something new and apply it to your existing fleet, I believe it will improve the adoption of technology.

SF: How do John Deere dealerships fit into this?

JH: Dealerships are critical, because they are the last mile for us. Their role is in educating the end user on how to use the technology and answering questions as quickly as possible in the heat of the moment. The dealership is a critical informational and relational element in making sure that a grower maximizes the potential of the technology.

SF: Connectivity in rural America has been and continues to be a hot topic. John Deere has had a very active voice in that conversation. Why is it important to continue to move the conversation forward to ensure rural America, which encompasses farmers, has the connectivity it needs?

JH: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of rural connectivity, not just for agriculture, but for society as a whole. In agriculture, we depend on connectivity to get the data a machine is collecting to the cloud, so something useful can be done with it. The more data we can transmit, the more powerful the data becomes. That information can help growers make better informed decisions, which gives them the ability to have more impact on their business. We must have better bandwidth in more locations in order to achieve that.

SF: This marks the third year John Deere had a presence at CES, the world’s largest technology event. Why does John Deere feel it’s important to be a part of this show?

JH: It’s important for Deere to be a part of CES to showcase the technology in agriculture, because it is a very well-kept secret. We have to help educate the public about how technology influences agriculture and brings food to their table. It’s a really important message and one we feel compelled to tell the world about.

SF: We’re operating in a virtual world today. How are you connecting with the people outside of agriculture for CES from the Deere & Company World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois?

JH: We’ve taken virtual reality technology and made an experience accessible to those who want to participate in the show. Virtual reality really helps connect people who don’t have that experience with what a tractor and a planter do on a farm.

We not only show them what farming is like above ground, the experience also takes them below ground into the soil profile. They get to see what a seed looks like when it’s sitting in the soil, and how the position of that seed within the soil is important to the whole operation. You can actually stretch the imagination a little bit when we allow the virtual reality experience to happen. In some ways, it’s more informative, perhaps, than the in-person experience would have been.

SF: John Deere has received the CES Innovation award for two consecutive years. The first was for its 8RX tractor and more recently for its X Series combines. How does this recognition elevate what Deere is trying to accomplish by exhibiting at the show? 

JH: The recognition is really a great indication that the world is starting to recognize how much technology actually exists in our agricultural equipment and in the agricultural process. It also recognizes the importance of that technology to the sustainability of the agricultural industry.

SF: With the acquisition of Blue River Technology, John Deere is ushering in the next generation of weed control that will greatly reduce the use of pesticides. How will technology like this transform farming?

JH: Blue River’s See & Spray technology is going to transform farming from a sustainability perspective. The idea that you can minimize inputs while retaining yield, or even increasing yield, is important to a farmer’s balance sheet. 

This technology gives a machine the gift of vision. Spraying is one application, but there are others coming down the pipeline. We’re just starting to scratch the surface on what this technology can do. That’s really exciting because it means we’re going to be able to continue to move down this path of reducing inputs while maximizing outputs for years to come. 

SF: What other technologies/innovations are on your radar?

JH: We’re just starting to dip our toe into the idea of sensing, like the gift of vision. If a machine can sense like a human, what other applications will it be able to do more precisely? That runway is very long for us, and it is decades-long for humanity. John Deere is excited to be on the front end of it.

SF: What is Deere’s strategy for innovation vs. acquisition?

JH: If you think about how we approach acquisitions vs. internal development and partnerships, each case is unique. Our intent is to identify what the appropriate relationship is. It might be an acquisition. It might be a partnership. It might be development within John Deere that gives us the best chance of success in terms of putting that technology in the marketplace and doing it as quickly as possible. There are some technologies we don’t have a core understanding of within Deere, so we may acquire a company like Blue River that has that capability. It allows us to get into the market much faster than we could developing it internally.

SF: What is your vision for the farm of the future?

JH: The farm of the future is an extension of today’s farm, where connectivity is ubiquitous. We’ve got machines connected to machines. We’ve got machines connected to the cloud. We’re not just collecting data and informing growers of the data; we’re actually utilizing that data to help make suggestions across an entire operation. Drawing insights from that data, I think, is the farm of the future.

Increasing levels of automation, to the point of autonomy, is also going to be reflected in the farm of the future. It’s an exciting path to be on, but it’s going to take time. We’re going to see it develop organically over time, but I’m certain the farm of the future has equipment without a human in the seat.

SF: If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?

JH: I would have dinner with one of the farmers we do business with because the reality is that we are only successful if farmers are successful. Our successes are intertwined, and we have to be tuned in to what they see as important. It is critical to everything we do. John Deere exists for the purpose of developing great products and services, so growers can put food on the table for a global population. No conversation is more important than that one.

SF: What keeps you awake at night?

JH: Not going fast enough. The pace of technology is changing rapidly today. We have a great opportunity to take advantage of it in the agricultural space, but that opportunity is limited by our ability to introduce it, so we have to simply move faster. We have to be able to do better in terms of applying technology more quickly. There’s a tremendous potential that’s left untapped when you don’t move as quickly as you possibly can.

SF: What would blacksmith John Deere think about the company’s evolution more than 180 years later? 

JH: John Deere was an innovator, and his self-scouring steel plow transformed agriculture. He would be proud that the company’s core value is still innovation and that our connection to farmers today remains just as strong as it was when he was running the company.

SF Bio:

Hometown: Maxwell, Iowa

Background: Jahmy Hindman joined John Deere in 1996 as a test engineer, working on backhoes and crawlers. Since then, he’s been in a variety of leadership roles. In July 2020, he became John Deere’s first chief technology officer. He is responsible for building the company’s tech stack, an intuitive end-to-end equipment solution made up of hardware and devices, embedded software, connectivity, data platforms, and applications.

Education: Hindman holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Iowa State University as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Saskatchewan. His doctorate focused on the application of artificial neural networks in heavy-equipment applications.

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