Land O’Lakes president, CEO featured speaker at Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture

Beth Ford will tell you she didn’t grow up on a farm, but has since found herself immersed in agriculture.

She’s the current president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc., and recently spoke at the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture at Kansas State University. She’s been at the Fortune 200 food production and agribusiness company since 2018.

Land O’ Lakes is most recognizable for their dairy products, but Ford said the reality is this 100-year-old cooperative—owned by farmers, producers and retail owners—comprises much more than that. Four segments make up the company including the dairy business, Purina, WinField United, and Truterra.

Since taking the helm at Land O’Lakes, Ford has been surprised by a number of things. Admittedly, she was taken back by how little she actually knew about agriculture even though she grew up in the farm state of Iowa.

“I don’t think one summer detasseling corn really qualifies for me being an expert,” she said.

She continues to be surprised at the kindness and giving natures of owners and members of Land O’Lakes, but on the other side of the coin, Ford believes consumers and their lack of knowledge about agriculture is a little disheartening.

“What has surprised me is how little everybody knows about agriculture, about the food supply. And it’s frightening, actually,” she said.

People not knowing where food comes from, compounded by the challenges facing the global food supply makes it a tough situation for many.

There are so many obstacles to over come—less land, less water and labor challenges. Even more so is the food insecurity many American face, especially in rural parts of the country.

“It’s unacceptable. We need investment in these communities,” she said.

Successful businesses want to be in a vibrant community where families are healthy, happy and supported. Ford recognized this and with all the issues many rural towns and cities face, it’s going to be hard to have a successful farmer or rancher.

“Over 90 some percent of farms are family owned. They have to show up for their families, for their communities,” she said. “And it has to start with making sure that they have every opportunity that every one of us deserve.”

Ford has learned one of the underlying issues many farmers and ranchers face is technology. Broadband access is critical and very few communities—not just at the farm—don’t have the access they need.

“It’s hard to say to a new business is starting up and jobs are going to be created when there’s no technology,” she said.

It’s not just the ability to have broadband internet to stream movies, but residents need to be able to connect with a doctor for a tele-health visit for times when hospitals are overwhelmed like during the pandemic. Same goes for children trying to get online to complete homework.

Ford believes the best thinking, best technology and agriculture to meet the grand challenges, as well as immigration reform.

“We have to have labor in the country. We are like two and a half million workers short,” she said. “We need to get a solution because over 6 million acres weren’t planted last year because of lack of labor.”

She said in the central valley of California, many crops—about a third of hand picked crops—were not harvested because there was no labor available.

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“We have got to solve this problem and come up with a solution,” she said.

Then there is water. It’s a state-by-state challenge, and this is concerning for Ford because of the federal implications.

“So when there’s a fight between the urban area and the rural area, and most people don’t understand the needs in rural areas for agriculture, for the food supply,” she said. “I would love to have a policy and I’m not talking about water rights or something, I’m talking about investment in reservoirs, piping. I’m talking about desalinization—what is the technology that we can use to advantage ourselves over time and be more resilient against this, this climate that is changing?”

Another challenge she’s aware of is the sharp increases to commodity prices, but also input prices. Those don’t seem to be leveling off, but it’s concerning going into 2023 for Land O’Lakes farmer-members. For Ford, the commodity prices are high, but the breakevens are more concerning. Steel prices are up, labor is up, all compounding the strain on a farmer’s bank account.

Ford is concerned about the potential rail strike because it wasn’t ratified with maintenance crews and that’s a big one as the busiest season for transportation is about to begin. She is however feeling better about her members and farmers because of how they were able to position themselves.

“But they’re looking at the ‘23 crop year now. So they’re buying inputs—trying to understand in this kind of volatile working marketplace, what is the risk that they should take,” she said. “Obviously, in the food value chain, the farmer takes the greatest amount of risk, because the only way to throw off that kind of a risk in a commodity market is to differentiate or to get scale and that’s very difficult to do for your (average sized) farmer.”

She’s impressed with how savvy they are and how they understand the market.

“They’re very smart business people,” she said. “But we’re going see this other side.”

In closing, Ford expressed her belief in the importance of the American farmer.

“I believe it’s amazing to me less than 1% feed us all the people around the world. What a worthy endeavor,” she said. “It is the greatest privilege of my career of 36 years to work on our farmers behalf and on their family’s behalf.”

She hopes farmers and those involved with agriculture can be louder and find their voice when it comes to how important agriculture is for the country.

“Food security is national security,” she said. “And already so much is invested by agriculture and by farmers, by their communities all the time and we need to we need to put voice to it because otherwise somebody else—somebody else defines who you are.”

Eventually somebody else will decide what “you get and they don’t know what you’re doing,” Ford said.

“What activities revolve around the kind of work you do, the hard work everyday,” she said. “But beyond that, the intelligence, the optimism, the willingness, the resilience.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].