MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – For this week’s Minnesotan to Meet, WCCO traveled to the Land O’ Lakes headquarters in Arden Hills.
Teddy Bekele is the son of an Ethiopian agronomist.
After getting a taste of the family business at a young age, Bekele never thought farming would be in his future. But, after starting his career in mechanical engineering, he took a chance and made the move to Minnesota.
It’s what he’s done since then that makes Bekele a Minnesotan to Meet.
Born in Ethiopia, Bekele lived there until he was 4-years-old.
“My dad was a farmer, actually an agronomist. Through certain connections he acquired some land, and he farmed about 400 acres of corn, wheat and cotton,” Bekele said.
In the 70s, the family’s land became nationalized and his family literally lost their livelihood overnight.
That’s when they moved to his mother’s home country of Italy.
“My dad sold crop protection products from France and Germany and England into eastern Africa. And then when I was about 17-years-old my dad wanted to move to the United States and continue his business here. So, we moved to Raleigh, N.C.” Bekele said.
Bekele speaks Ethiopian, Italian and, although English isn’t his first language, you wouldn’t know.
“I worked really hard to get rid of [my accent]. I moved during my high school years. I have two younger brothers and one is close in age to me. So, we made a pact with each other, ‘Let’s correct it at each and every turn whenever we had the accent.’ So, we got rid of it,” he said.
After working up and down the east coast in mechanical engineering, he was approached by Land O’ Lakes.
When asked if he thought he would ever get back to his roots after traveling so far from it, he said he didn’t.
“I didn’t think that at all,” he said. “When I graduated high school, or in the process of graduating, my dad asked me what I wanted to do or where I wanted to focus my attention. The two things that I said I wouldn’t do: one was music, because I’m not a very good musician, and the other one was agriculture, because I saw the struggles he went through in his life and just decided it wasn’t an area [I wanted to be in]. And he agreed with both of those.”
Four years ago, the Ag. business came calling. First, running IT for Winfield United. Now, and most recently, as Vice President of Ag Technology at WinField United, which is the seed and crop protection business of Land O’ Lakes. At WinField, he helps develop new technologies to take to the farm.
While many people may think of Amazon and Google when it comes to technology, Bekele said there is a lot of tech found in unexpected places.
“[Technology] is a huge component, especially in American agriculture. If you think to 1930’s, 26 percent of population was involved in American agriculture,” he said. “When you look at today it’s less than 2.5 percent, but we are producing more food now than we were back in the 1930’s. So, all that’s happened because of technological innovations.”
Bekele finds himself spending a considerable amount of time in both rural and urban America.
“It’s interesting how I go from Silicon Valley in San Francisco and talk about some of the stuff that blows my mind, I barely understand it, and then the next two days I’m in York, Neb. where, yesterday I just found out, there is at least one county with no traffic lights,” Bekele said.
Earlier this year he traveled to Austin to present at South by Southwest (SXSW) to educate tech minds about production agriculture. He called the three day trip a success.
“I had a lot of great comments from people who knew nothing about agriculture but now were really excited about wanting to learn more and get engaged,” Bekele said.
Although it’s career turn he thought he would never take, Bekele wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s so interesting that I’m back in the world [my father] lived in, but bringing a whole new lens to it with my professional background up to this point and the technology side. And really being able to move that forward. It’s almost this family legacy of this agriculture and advancing it, using all these new technologies and new capabilities. But still having roots tied down to how I grew up and what my dad did in the past,” he said. “That’s the core of what makes me proud these days.”
Bekele said they work with Google, Microsoft and Amazon to develop their solutions and then they take those technologies to the farm.
Bekele said he loves Minneapolis and he and his wife are even getting used to winter. He said after a recent trip to North Carolina, he thought it was a little too hot there.