Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford explains why farmers need broadband

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Good morning!

Ellen McGirt standing in for Alan Murray, who is still enjoying a well-deserved staycation. I’m not sure if he’s baking, however.

If not, he’s in the minority. As the pandemic shut down the retail restaurant business, it fired up home kitchens across the country, which became one of many sudden problems for Land O’Lakes, the $15 billion farmer-owned cooperative.

“What we normally do, is we make what we call advanced state butter. We manufacture it, and we put it aside for key season,” says Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford. “Key season for dairy is Christmas and Thanksgiving when we’re all home baking. Well, now everybody’s home baking.”

Alan and I caught up with Ford on this week’s episode of the Leadership Next podcast (Apple/Spotify), and she shared the kind of rapid innovation that became necessary for the business, and their more than 1,700 dairy farmers, to survive during the quarantine. The consumer piece was easier to fix—sell, don’t store, the butter. But the milk that typically went to restaurant markets had to be repurposed, fast. One of many ideas a new, internal skunkworks team came up with: a co-manufactured new mozzarella cheese product, packaged on behalf of the farmers, and available in grocery stores near them. “The agility of the team has been pretty phenomenal,” she says.

Ford talked about how technology is transforming the dairy industry—that conversation alone will change the way you think about how a farm actually operates. But she sees her job as CEO as inextricably linked with the need to create vital businesses in healthy, rural communities. One thing she knows will help is robust internet. For one thing, the kinds of innovation happening on family farms—from crop yield and animal health data to climate insights—don’t matter much if they don’t have broadband.

“Oftentimes I’ll go [visit a farm], and somebody will have this wonderful invention, their own data and analytics and everything. I say, that’s interesting, but we can’t use it because nobody has broadband out here,” she says. “So it’s not like, ‘my kid can’t stream Netflix.’ This is, ‘I can’t auto-steer the tractor and I can’t pull in this data.’”

But nothing else good happens without broadband, either. The pandemic has made a challenging life even more fraught. Businesses are struggling, kids can’t access virtual school, communities are increasingly food insecure, and entire communities have lost access to health care as rural hospitals have closed. “This is simply unacceptable,” she says. “It leaves us so uncompetitive, it’s unbelievable.”

Ford’s work includes an innovative alliance with Google, another with the Mayo Clinic and other health care providers, and she has shared her big vision for a wired-for-access heartland to every governor in the country, along with Congress, and the White House.

She says it’s part of her job. “We’re owned by farmers. I see their families all the time. We’re owned by local retailers. I see their families, and I’m in their communities all the time,” she says. “And while we put in time…I always say to my board, this isn’t about time. This is about being the conveners. It is awareness, advocacy, action—awareness, advocacy, action.”

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Ellen McGirt