As the head of a Fortune 500 company based in the Twin Cities, Beth Ford oversees a $14 billion business with more than 9,000 employees. Yet Land O' Lakes is also a farmer-owned cooperative with around 3,300 producer-members. When the pandemic struck, Ford-who has been CEO since 2018-recognized that rural America's feeble digital infrastructure was going to add another set of COVID-related challenges to the farming communities she works with.
Upward of 42 million people in the U.S. lack broadband access, and most are in rural areas-places where hospitals have closed, jobs have ebbed and homelessness has risen at alarmingly high rates since the start of the pandemic. Residents without high-speed internet can't consult with doctors-and their children can't virtually attend school. Farmers, who increasingly rely on high-tech tools to improve the management of their fields and herds, can't operate productively. "It's hard to have an effective farmer when the vibrancy of the community is in decline," says Ford. "And we know that one of the great enablers of our time is technology." She sprang into action.
Just two months after the country began locking down, Ford convinced Land O'Lakes facilities-offices, plants, stores-and hundreds of business partners in 49 states to make their Wi-Fi networks public, so students could sit in their family cars in the parking lot to attend classes or complete homework. And Ford inked a sweeping agreement with Microsoft to help Land O' Lakes farmers get broadband access and upgrade to cutting-edge equipment. The two companies are now collaborating on a program that will allow farmers to measure the extra carbon captured in their soil if they adopt no-till planting and other regenerative agriculture techniques-and then sell carbon credits to companies including Microsoft, adding an important new income stream for them. It's the first farmer-owned carbon marketplace in the country.
For Ford, investing in rural communities doesn't just make life better for farmers. "Everybody should be concerned about this," she says. "Because food is a security issue. It's an American competitiveness issue. And it's simply the right thing to do."