At the research and development departments at Corteva Agriscience, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Sam Eathington is turning to his career experience to help guide the next few decades of developing and launching products for agricultural producers. 

 

“We’re a pure-play agriculture company focused on how we bring solutions to farmers and try to solve issues they have on their farm, whether it’s producing more or being more sustainable in how they produce their food,” said Eathington, who joined Corteva on Jan. 1. “We’re bringing inputs to those farmers -- what seed they plant, we have biotech traits that we’re making available to farmers, and we have a lot of chemistry in controlling insects, weeds, things like that.”

 

Previously, Eathington was the chief science officer at the Climate Corp., and served in various roles over 17 years at Monsanto Co., including vice president of global plant breeding. 

 

“There’s roughly 20,000-plus employees around the world, and we all get up every day thinking about how we help a farmer, how we help production or help the system be more sustainable,” Eathington said of Corteva. “If you look at our legacy companies, there’s a tremendous history of innovation and bringing solutions to farmers.”


How do you describe your role at Corteva? 

As chief technology officer, I oversee our research programs: What are we working on, how are we spending our money, tracking against goals and the direction that we’re trying to go as far as a research organization. 

 

You can break up our research into simple buckets. The seed part is how you create, say, better corn hybrids. We do that through our plant breeding programs. … Our biotech trait program is [taking] a gene from another species and putting it into corn, or soybeans. That plant now has a new tolerance for an insect, for example, that it didn’t naturally have. On the chemistry side, it’s the same sort of logic. You’re trying to discover and create a new active ingredient that can control an insect, or control weeds, disease. … We like to think about these timelines being a decadelong initiative.


What drew you to this role? 

After I got out of graduate school, I actually moved to Iowa, lived up in Ames and worked for another seed company. I ultimately made my way to what was Monsanto at the time, and I worked there for about 24 years before joining Corteva. During that time frame, I did a lot on plant breeding and how we use new DNA techniques. Everything has DNA or RNA, and you can measure that and use that to help in your plant breeding program. In the late 1990s to early 2000s I did a lot of work on what we call molecular plant breeding. I joined the Climate Corp. where I worked on digital activities of how you bring data and information to a farmer, to help them make improved decisions during their farming practices. It’s kind of cool to create a new digital business and all the challenges with data and information … but ultimately I had a chance to come to Corteva and I jumped. I was extremely excited about the opportunity to get to be part of this company. 

 

Here in Johnston, Iowa, with Pioneer, this is the 95th year since that company was started here in town. It’s really cool to be part of that history. That was the leading edge in technology, plant breeding and how you do things. For me, it was a pretty easy choice to join a company that is focused on farmers and agriculture, and has all those incredible components and historic innovation that we get to bring together. 


What are some of the biggest growth opportunities in Iowa agritechnology? 

Some of the challenges farmers here in Iowa are facing are really anywhere in the world: How do you become more profitable on the farming operation? We have good commodity prices right now, but roll back the clock a year or two and it was a different story. How do we make those inputs that we make available to the farmer and make them produce more? How do we make them more efficient?

[At] the same time, we have a lot of new requests from society on how we produce our food -- wanting to know exactly how it was done, where it was produced, what was applied to it. If you think about printing new solutions that help farmers be more sustainable, or produce food in a different way that the general population might want to consume, we have a lot of work going on there. Biologics as an example -- how to use a bacterium or a fungus to control an insect, or maybe even do partial control of the insect. Therefore, you may use a little less synthetic chemistry. 

 

A new [technique] that got a lot of attention this last year is carbon sequestration. If you think about an ag farm today, those crops are using a lot of carbon to go ahead and produce that grain and plant material. … Agriculture can become part of the solution of how we deal with carbon in the atmosphere, and we see new opportunities developing for farmers to maybe be paid for that, and actually get paid for how much carbon they’re going to sequester into their field. 


What goals do you have for the next year in this role?

We create new products against what we think are problems that our farmers are facing. I think for their organization over the next couple of years, we want to see that pipeline continue to advance towards commercial implementation so that the value that we’re creating actually gets out to farmers. It doesn’t do much good to have a publication or something sitting on the shelf if the farmer doesn’t get to plant it or use it, so we’re very focused on how we advance the pipeline and get good products out there. 

 

For myself, I’ve been on the job now for five months or so. Still learning an awful lot about the company, and the incredible organization that I get to be part of -- not only just R&D, but the Corteva organization. It’s how I contribute and help Corteva be successful in the next couple of years. If we’re successful, then I know we’re helping farmers be more successful. If farmers are more successful, I know we’re helping society produce more food and a better food supply, so that’s the reward at the end of the day. 


What have you been reading/watching/listening to lately? 

The last couple of months I have been reading a lot about Corteva and our research organization -- I’m trying to catch up on a massive amount of research and activity and company history. 

I enjoy listening to podcasts about technology, machine learning and data analytics to keep up with that. It’s such an incredible space and innovation. When I go out and take my walks, I tend to listen to data science podcasts -- there’s a bunch out there, I just scroll through and see which topics I want to listen to, and if they haven’t caught my attention in the first five to 10 minutes, I’ll shut them off and jump to the next one.