Difference Makers: Beth Ford, Land O' Lakes

beth fordWhat do you consider primary challenges to rural broadband access?

Lack of adequate broadband access in rural communities jeopardizes basic services like health care and education and short- and long-term economic competitiveness. Better connectivity is critical for our future, especially in the context of this pandemic. It is a fundamental right. But we won’t fix the problem purely based on economics or data. Underserved locations are spread out, solutions are costly and federal broadband coverage maps are inaccurate and unreliable.

The United Soybean Board found 60 percent of U.S. farmers lack sufficient connectivity. Many times, this is a result of no broadband infrastructure present or exorbitant costs associated with expanding service. A USDA study in 2019 estimated the total economic impact in agriculture could exceed $18 billion per year if broadband infrastructure enabled the deployment of next generation precision agriculture. That’s why Land O’Lakes and others are calling for significant federal investment to help bridge the digital divide for both infrastructure buildout and investing for long-term sustainability. This is the 1930s rural electrification of our time. As momentum builds, it’s encouraging for agriculture and communities where farmers live and work.      

Why did Land O’Lakes take on this issue?

Land O’Lakes is a farmer-owned cooperative that touches 10,000 rural communities, 25 percent of growers nationwide and half the harvested acres. Our members, producers and employees live and work in these communities, so their protection and promotion are foundational to everything we do. Their success matters to me and our organization and is tied to future collective success.

Broadband connectivity is the underpinning of competitiveness and attracting and retaining talent, resilience and vitality. It also strengthens basic services such as telemedicine and education. Better connectivity provides opportunity for access and stability for these resources in the community. We also see this issue as an important reminder of the shared destiny between rural and urban America. A safe and affordable food supply is a pillar of national security.

What have you done to help improve rural broadband access?

Through our American Connection Project, we advocate for full internet accessibility. We have raised awareness, gained advocates and increasingly are taking action. When the pandemic first hit, Land O’Lakes, many of our rurally located retail-owners and coalition partners offered free and open Wi-Fi access to rural residents. We built a coalition that is more than 80 members strong, including the American Soybean Association (ASA). We’re thrilled to work with ASA. This coalition, spanning multiple industries, has aligned to push for a robust federal investment in broadband infrastructure, support strong coordination at the federal level to deploy these resources in coordination with states, and support improved broadband mapping.

What still needs to be done to give rural residents the access they need?

Congress needs to pass a robust federal investment in broadband infrastructure. Last year, USDA issued a report, citing Deloitte data, that estimated it would require “between $130 and $150 billion over the next five to seven years, to adequately support rural coverage and 5G wireless densification.” It comes down to greater federal funding, better mapping to identify where broadband coverage is needed, and increased coordination between federal and state agencies.

Farmers and rural residents must engage with policymakers to push for these priorities and help raise awareness of the issues. Our collective voice is stronger and more likely to be heard.

Beth Ford is president and CEO for Land O’Lakes, Inc., a Fortune 200 food production and agribusiness company that is also a nearly 100-year-old farmer-owned cooperative. Since joining Land O’Lakes in 2011, she has held roles leading the farmer-to-fork business offerings.