Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’ Lakes, spoke to a crowd of 300 farmers Thursday morning in Mentone at Ceres Solutions’ annual Knowledge Event. Ford was named to the helm of the longtime butter company in 2018 and brought a focus on technology and innovation in agriculture to Thursday’s speech. Photo by Amanda Bridgman
Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’ Lakes, spoke to a crowd of 300 farmers Thursday morning in Mentone at Ceres Solutions’ annual Knowledge Event. Ford was named to the helm of the longtime butter company in 2018 and brought a focus on technology and innovation in agriculture to Thursday’s speech. Photo by Amanda Bridgman
Lake O’Lakes President and CEO Beth Ford spoke to more than 300 local farmers Thursday at a Ceres Solutions Knowledge Event in Mentone.

Ceres CEO Jeff Troike said the event, in its second year, aims to provide farmers with information about newer technologies and newer practices in the industry so they can make more efficient and more profitable decisions.

Ford’s experience in the industry, and her focus for the future, is why he invited her as the event’s keynote speaker.

“When you look at Land O’ Lakes everyone thinks butter, cheese and milk,” Troike said. “But that’s just one third of their business. There’s also an agronomic business side, and then they also have Purina.”

Ford’s focus on technology in the industry is a big part of what she brings to her leadership at Land O’ Lakes. Troike thought her remarks about that would be beneficial to this area’s growers.

Ford talked to a tentful of the co-op’s members about a variety of topics, starting off with this year’s particularly rough planting season.

“This year, the weather was dictating the disruption,” Ford said of farmers having late plantings. She talked about Land O’ Lakes’ technology that captures data from plots using artificial intelligence and forecasting. This data, provided to farmers through their Elite Rx program, can help farmers make “in-season decisions.”

“Disruption is our opportunity, and innovation is our advantage,” Ford said. “In-season decision-making is key. How can we leverage data and analytics to help the grower to make the most optimal decision, so those models we use continue to update.

“Agriculture is the last place in the industry at this level to be disrupted with data and analytics,” she said, noting retail, health care or even grocery stores.

“Who’s winning in retail? Best Buy. They don’t make any money selling a TV,” she said. “They make money on services. The reason I bring this up here is because we have to think of this differently. How do we improve profitability with the grower?”?

She said farmers need to have a level of comfort or understanding of analytics to move forward in the new economy, and if they don’t, others will define their right to operate.

“Consumers won’t buy your products if they don’t think your behavior is sustainable,” she said. “We need more people engaged with the data.”

She talked about genetically modified organisms as an example of a right to operate being dictated by someone other than the growers.

“We almost lost GMO’s,” she said. “We know GMO’s was marketing. This is a right to operate issue.”

She encouraged farmers to get with the program when it comes to using data and communicating it to legislators, elected officials and the world.

The first step, she said, is demanding broadband Internet in rural areas and investments in those rural communities.

“I saw the town, and it’s lovely,” Ford said of Mentone, adding she was raised in a small town in Iowa.

“Thirty percent of farmers don’t have broadband. That’s unacceptable,” she said, adding that if farmers don’t get access to the Internet without having to go to a McDonald’s for free Wi-Fi, “it will be catastrophic.

“We’ve had hundreds of rural hospitals shut down. Did you know three of four farmers have been directly affected by the opioid crisis. This just isn’t right,” she said.

“Demand investment in a strong, thriving economy in rural America. This lack of investing is cascading.”

She said 78% of those who are food insecure, or who don’t have enough to eat, are in rural areas.

“And this is where the food is grown,” Ford said. “Policy is critical for agriculture. We have to talk outside the comfort zones of rural America. We need other people to see and care.”