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Beth Ford, CEO of the $15 billion farmer-owned cooperative Land O’Lakes, often sounds more like an activist than she does a Big Ag chief executive. On the latest episode of Fortune podcast “Leadership Next,” Ford talks about her cause: bringing technology to the rural communities that need it to survive the pandemic and in the modern world that often moves forward without them.
Her entry point in that fight is addressing the need for broadband access in rural America. A third of rural schools lack broadband, she said, which affects everything from farmers’ work to children’s schooling to telemedicine visits. To bring access to these communities, Land O’Lakes and Microsoft are partnering up. Ford and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believe they can improve things at the farm level using technology—and by teaming up with health care organizations, government officials at the local and federal levels, and other groups that care about the cause.
“It’s not just a rural issue. We need to understand that. It’s an American competitiveness issue,” she said. “These are the people that are farming, that are feeding us. This isn’t somebody else’s problem; this is all of our problem.”
Once basic broadband access is more established in rural communities, Land O’Lakes and Microsoft will be able to expand their high-tech, data-heavy agricultural programs that can provide information on weather, crop yield, and more down to the acre. “From there,” Ford said, “we can make all sorts of recommendations. We can work with farmers to find what’s most sustainable and profitable and productive.”
Increased data and technology is “definitely the direction the food industry is moving in,” according to Beth Kowitt, Fortune journalist and food industry expert. In her reporting, Kowitt says she hasn’t seen any other CEO be so visible on this issue. And as agriculture has been slower to warm to technology and its myriad uses in their business, Ford’s advocacy is a welcome departure from the norm.
“We rely on these communities to feed us,” Kowitt said. “Their success is so critical to how we operate as a country, and I think [Ford] knows they need to be strong, that there needs to be a compelling reason for the next generation to stay and work these jobs.”
To hear how Ford thinks her status as the first openly gay woman to become CEO at a Fortune 500 company affects her leadership (or doesn’t), how she believes business’ approach to supply chains will change following the pandemic, and why Land O’Lakes chose to remove the image of a Native American woman from it’s packaging, listen to the full episode.