Rural America is struggling more than most people realize, and there’s not a lot of time left to do something to fix it — for everybody.
That’s what Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford told business leaders and officials at the Economic Club of Minnesota Wednesday in an hourlong address in Minneapolis.
Ford, who has headed the 99-year-old cooperative since 2018, called on more investment in broadband, education and health care. She said her company was even planning to launch a half-dozen rural “service centers” to aggregate high-speed internet, telemedicine and other amenities.
“Every business is a digital business now, every business is a technology business, and agriculture is one of the last sectors to be disrupted,” Ford said. “Especially by e-business and technology.”
She said expanding global markets and the ethanol boom made for a robust ag sector from 2005 to 2013. “Farmers were making money,” she said. But thanks to a strong U.S. dollar, the decline of ethanol and international competition, tariffs and retail disruption, from Amazon to Walmart, “it has been a very stressed operating environment,” Ford said.
Networked technology can help bring farming and food production back to profitability, she said, but it isn’t sufficiently available. She said that of the 24 million people who lack access to broadband technology, 19 million are in rural America.
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That’s putting food producers at a disadvantage: not just in terms of the technology in their tractor cabs, but in the schools their kids attend, the clinics where they seek medical and mental health care and in the markets where they could find innovations in marketing and distribution, Ford said.
“This is not a political issue. This is not red/blue. … This is an American issue. Connection matters,” Ford said. “We need to remind ourselves every day of the shared destiny of the population of America.” She said food security was also a key factor in national security.
She called broadband access a $150 billion problem, and suggested it should be a national priority like rural electrification in the 1930s.
Ford also said Land O’ Lakes was talking to leaders from Microsoft, Amazon and other companies about direct action in some of the more than 7,000 communities where her cooperative has a presence.
“What we want to do is to directly be a convener. To take over a storefront if we can,” she said. “Drop a line in, get some high-speed internet. Have some boosters, have four or five work stations, where kids can access technology to do their homework… take Advanced Placement courses. Where they can pick up fresh groceries.”
“Rural America is the new inner city,” she said. “It has not been invested in. There’s lack of attention, and this is something that should concern all of us.”
Ford said in an interview later that the “service centers” could even provide facilities for telemedicine and mental health care. She said she hoped Land O’Lakes and its partners could open as many as a half-dozen of them this year, although she declined to identify where they might be or put a price tag on the initiative, saying negotiations for sites were still underway.