Land O’Lakes has turned on public Wi-Fi at more than 100 co-op locations in rural America to give people without good internet access a chance to finish their homework or communicate with a nurse about an illness.
For Beth Ford, chief executive of the Arden Hills-based co-op, the move is a chance to highlight what she views as a critical gap in the nation’s infrastructure.
Highlights from an interview last week:
Q: Why is it important to talk about rural broadband right now?
A: I’ve pushed this topic a number of times — the need for technology investment in rural communities to support things like telemedicine, tele-education, entrepreneurs.
Nobody’s going to stay in communities or move to communities that don’t have that kind of access. This is in stark relief in this moment, where you can see this issue with the pandemic and everyone is going to remote learning and there’s concern over the reduction of the number of hospitals in rural communities, the shortage of doctors.
We’ve been pushing the need for a 1930s kind of rural electric level investment where we have broadband accessible across the United States. That would be a $100 billion to $150 billion investment.
Q: What is the obstacle to rural broadband getting done?
A: It’s not even an obstacle. It just has to be the priority. We need to think of it that way. It has to be almost a right, like mail delivery, like electricity, because it’s so central to the way we work and develop new businesses, and protect ourselves from a health perspective.
Q: A lot of people have learned recently about the distinction between food that’s produced for grocery stores and food that’s destined for restaurants and cafeterias. The two don’t mix in the supply chain so well. Is this true for Land O’Lakes products?
A: Our retail business is going great guns. Our retail butter, our retail cheese, our Kozy Shack pudding. The volumes are significant. And in fact we are only going to do our core items right now. Now is not the time to put cinnamon butter on the shelf. We do have of course food-service businesses and packages. It’s not even that the distribution lines are different, the processing is different.
For Land O’Lakes we’ve seen a significant decline in the food-service business as most have, 50% or 60%. Actually we’re starting to see, in May, orders start to return. The difficulty is that a significant portion of business went away and the manufacturing capacity may not be completely aligned, and that’s why you see this disruption with people saying “Why are they dumping milk when I go to the grocery store and can only buy one gallon?”
Q: What lessons have you learned as this pandemic has unfolded?
A: Relationships and partnerships are critically important. The No. 1 priority is your team ... your members. It reinforces what you already know, but never more critically important.
Q: You made news on this: Why remove Mia the Indian maiden from product packaging?
A: I don’t look at it that way. This has been more than a year and a half of review. We’re stepping into our 100th anniversary for our cooperative. As consumers look into the future, what are they most focused on?
Consumers are focused on where their food comes from, and they did not know that Land O’Lakes was a farmer-owned cooperative. That was a difference for many consumers, especially young consumers. What we want to do with our packaging is message the things that we thought differentiate Land O’Lakes, and that is the farmer ownership and the farmers. The packaging change is to highlight that.