Ralph Hofstad was the son of Methodist minister, and in his youth he had to decide between pursuing the ministry or a business career. He chose business, eventually becoming CEO of the farmer-owned dairy and agricultural cooperative Land O’Lakes, but faith, ministry and mission were integral to his leadership style.
Hofstad died Aug. 25 at age 90.
He was known as a visionary leader among cooperative organizations, pushing the capabilities of what had generally been state- and regional-bound organizations to global enterprises that help feed the world. In 1992, he was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame.
Hofstad was president and CEO of Land O’Lakes from 1974 to 1989. During his tenure, he strengthened the company’s feed, seed and agronomy operations and led successful mergers of Midland Cooperatives and Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative and a joint venture with Cenex. Sales at Land O’Lakes tripled while he was at the helm.
Hofstad was born Nov. 13, 1923, in Philadelphia, the son of Amelia and Ottar Hofstad, a minister in the United Methodist Church.
Ralph Hofstad attended Hamline University in St. Paul before enrolling in the Navy, serving from July 1943 to July 1946. He married his wife, Adeline, in 1947 and graduated from Northwestern University in 1948.
In 1948 he began his career at Illinois Farm Supply Co. By 1965 he had risen to president of FELCO (Farmers Regional Cooperative of Iowa), and in 1970 he helped engineer the merger between FELCO and Land O’Lakes.
He became senior vice president of ag supplies and services of Land O’Lakes after the merger, and eventually CEO. Hofstad was CEO when Land O’Lakes established its international development division in 1981. According to a company statement, “The division continues to positively impact the lives of farmers and entrepreneurs around the world and, to date, has managed agricultural development projects in about 80 countries.”
Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, said, “Ralph made many of the transformational and strategic decisions that helped Land O’Lakes grow, and established the foundation for the Fortune 200 food and agribusiness company that we have become today.”
Tom Veblen, a principal with consulting firm Food Systems Associates, worked with Hofstad from 1976 through 1989. Veblen calls Land O’Lakes under Hofstad one of the great successes of the cooperative movement. “He wanted to see the cooperative run in a more businesslike fashion,” Veblen said, “with emphasis on delivering more return to members.”
In his retirement, Hofstad continued to promote market-based farming principles in Russia as executive director of the Russian Community Farm Project. He applied what he learned in his 40-year-plus career in cooperative agriculture programs to Russians who were in the process of moving from the old system of large collective farms to smaller family-owned and -operated farms.
Hofstad faced a monumental task. He told the Star Tribune in a 1994 interview, “There is no farm credit, no extension, no one to go to for capital or know-how. There is no infrastructure.”
Hofstad is survived by his wife and their six children, Diane, Barb, Jim, Ron, Tom and Sue; 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
A Celebration of Life service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 4 at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis.