Land O’Lakes may be best known for its dairy products, but in 2018 it also earned the distinction of being one of only about two dozen Fortune 500 companies run by a woman CEO. That woman, Beth Ford ’95, is also the first openly gay woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She is an outspoken voice for America’s farmers, who, she wrote in an article for Fortune, “are generally too proud and humble to speak out.” The urban-rural divide is deepening, she says, and trade policies, climate change, and retail disruption are crushing farms, thus putting the world’s food supply at risk.
Ford’s work at Land O’Lakes has earned her significant attention. She was featured in a 60 Minutes profile and named to Fortune’s 2019 Most Powerful Women in Business list. Ford herself grew up in Iowa, and her first job, at age 12, was detasseling corn. After Columbia Business School, she worked in supply-chain management at ExxonMobil, Pepsi, and Scholastic, among other companies. She joined Land O’Lakes in 2011, holding several executive roles before becoming CEO. “It’s the most meaningful work of my career,” says Ford. “It’s the greatest privilege of my life to work on behalf of these families.” Here, Ford talks about the challenges facing agriculture and bridging the gap between urban and rural America.
Farming in the US is in crisis, and the statistics are, frankly, disheartening. For instance, the median farm income is minus $1,500. What would you say are the biggest challenges facing American farmers right now?
BF: The headwinds facing the agriculture industry are unprecedented. The top challenge I see is policy uncertainty. The trade wars have led to unease around tariffs, which in turn has led to Mexico and China cutting agricultural imports from the US. International trade is critical to farmers’ success; more than 15 percent of US milk production, for instance, is sold to Mexico. Another serious challenge is weather, which is being impacted by climate change. Farmers saw record rainfall last summer, delaying their planting season and resulting in serious losses.
Another—which I think many people don’t realize—is that 19 million rural Americans, many of whom are farmers, lack broadband access. This makes them unable to leverage the digital tools and cutting-edge agricultural technology on which modern farming relies. Finally, low commodity prices, an oversupply of milk, and ongoing consolidation of farms—at a rate of 6 percent a year—are adding to the hardship.
At the same time, you’ve said you’re optimistic about the future of farming. Why is that?
BF: Farmers have been agile and innovative for centuries. They are also the hardest-working group of people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I’m confident that agriculture— and farmers—will weather this storm. Quite frankly, it has to. Innovation, technology, and political stability will be key to preserving American agriculture.
What solutions are you most hopeful about when it comes to preserving American agriculture?
BF: I’m most excited about work being done in leveraging technology to improve sustainability. Our Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN business recently rolled out the Truterra Insights Engine, which is a digital platform that helps farmers quantify their sustainability progress and ROI in real time. It’s a game-changer, and it’s led to exciting partnerships for Land O’Lakes. For example, Campbell’s has partnered with SUSTAIN to benchmark farmers’ stewardship on acres that grow wheat for Goldfish crackers.
A second example is our collaboration with California Bioenergy, in which dairy and livestock methane emissions are captured and converted into renewable compressed natural gas used to power buses in LA. It’s a perfect example of the circular economy. Predictive models and technology are the wave of the future for agriculture. They’ll help us drive yield and be more efficient and sustainable.
You’ve said there is a shared destiny between farmers and people who live in cities, but that many people don’t realize this. Why is there such a divide between urban and rural America, and what needs to be done to bridge the gap?
BF: America’s heartland is nearing a breaking point. Statistics reveal rural America is the new “inner city,” falling behind the rest of the country in ways that should concern us all. There’s a shortage of 40 thousand doctors in rural communities. Three out of four farm workers have been directly impacted by the opioid crisis, and 78 percent of counties considered food insecure are in rural America. The divide is widening because our younger generations are growing up in suburbs and urban areas. Many have never been on a farm, let alone to a small rural community, and have little idea how different those two worlds are.
To me, the main issue is broadband access. If we don’t invest in rural communities—those who grow the majority of our food—we’ll face severe food and national security issues. It’s worth noting that 44 percent of those serving in our military come from rural areas. When we need them, they stand up; now it’s our turn. We need companies to invest in rural America and call on Congress to do the same. Investment solely by local governments won’t be enough.
What impact have the trade wars and tariffs had on Land O’Lakes?
BF: Agricultural profitability is directly affected by trade and the markets, and our farmers are losing money due to unpredictability. Some are even losing farms that they’ve had in their families for generations. We’re working in Washington to encourage the passage of the United States– Mexico-Canada Agreement; we need our legislators to move swiftly to help our farmers.
Many consumers don’t realize that Land O’Lakes is actually a cooperative. What is different about running a co-op compared to running a company with a standard corporate structure?
BF: Our farmers are our bosses. I technically report to them, not to shareholders. Our success is our farmer-members’ success, and vice versa. Our cooperative structure is also an advantage when it comes to consumer transparency. Consumers want authenticity in their products and to know where their food is coming from. With our “farmer-to-fork” view, we’re able to provide that in a very authentic way.
You’ve been recognized as a trailblazer. What impact do you hope to have when it comes to diversity and inclusion both within your own company and in the wider agriculture sector and business world?
BF: Women are a tremendous force in the agriculture and food industry. A third of US farmers are women, but it hasn’t been until recently that people started to hear about women’s huge role in the industry. Agriculture needs diverse backgrounds and different perspectives to weather the current landscape and to bring innovative ideas to the table.
Is there anything you learned at Columbia that you draw on in your current role?
BF: As I gained experience, I could see the key role that networks, relationships, and a broad world view played in a successful career. Columbia offered a global focus and opportunities to interact with faculty, businesses, and future business and political leaders. That helped push me to a new level.