Agribusiness company Land O’Lakes has named Beth Ford its new president and CEO, appointing her to the top job at a challenging and tumultuous period for the agriculture industry.
With the promotion, she also joins an even smaller group: By Fortune’s count, Ford will be the third openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the first woman. Ford said it didn’t even come up in her discussions with the board. But she conceded that “it’s not nothing.”
Ford takes over as Land O’Lakes is contending with tariffs on U.S. dairy goods that were put into effect in retaliation for President Trump’s trade war.
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“We’re managing through them quite well,” Ford said, but “getting to some level of certainty on trade agreements is important. It allows businesses to understand what the rules are and playing field is so that they can manage their business and invest appropriately.”
During her tenure, Ford has helped the cooperative look beyond its core dairy business for growth, investing in technology and R&D such as its ag-tech platform, WinField, and satellite technology company, GeoSys.
“The view is that ag is one of the last industries to be disrupted by technology, and we’re really seeing that,” she said. “There’s a changing playing field.”
The press release announcing Ford’s promotion ended by noting that she and her spouse, Jill Schurtz—who Ford said was “the greatest fortune of her life”—and their three teenage children live in Minneapolis.
Ford said she was not sure she was seeking to be a role model as one of the few openly gay Fortune 500 CEOs, but she said “if it gives someone encouragement and belief that they can be their authentic self and live their life and things are possible, than that’s a terrific moment.”
Ford said that she remembers what it was like to be in her 20s and not feel like she could be her full self at work.
“I think I’ve been fortunate since my mid-30s of being just who I am,” she said. “I think it must be really hard if you feel like you’re in a culture where you can’t be who you are. Work is hard enough, and then when you have to feel as though you can’t be who are, that’s got to be incredibly difficult.”