Beth Ford, named president and chief executive officer of Land O’Lakes Inc. in July 2018, answered several questions about her vision for the company in this exchange with NGFA.
Ford – the first woman to lead the nearly century-old, farmer-owned cooperative that also ranks on the Fortune 500 list – first joined the company in 2011, where she was responsible for the company’s Purina Animal Nutrition, U.S. Dairy Foods and WinField United businesses.
Ford will be the keynote industry speaker during the grand opening breakfast at the NGFA’s 123rd annual convention on Amelia Island, Fla., on March 18. View the full convention schedule here.
Q: Land O’Lakes is already ahead of the curve with its investments in data technology. What do you anticipate as the next trend or next investment you’ll be making in the technology space?
Ford: Investing in technology is critical to the success of Land O’Lakes and to the success of our members. We are using the applied research plots we’ve operated for decades to capture historical data and leveraging that with our infrastructure to show growers how to produce more with less, profitably. At the heart of it, we are trying to reduce outcome variability for growers and producers. The SUSTAIN platform and our predictive models provide analytics to enable the farmer to make real-time decisions when they matter most – during the growing season.
We look at the marketplace back to employ our vast research and development capabilities to keep up with emerging consumer and health trends. And, that’s just the beginning. More importantly, we’re constantly asking ourselves, “what’s next?” From dairy products to feed, to crop inputs and sustainability, innovation is vital to every aspect of our farmer-to-fork business portfolio, and technology and data is what that innovation relies on most heavily.
The Land O’Lakes I envision transforms businesses by leveraging all forms of emerging technology, including robotics, artificial intelligence, voice recognition, drones, e-business practices and more, to help achieve our goal of feeding a growing world population while strengthening rural communities, improving sustainability and advantaging farmers.
Q: How is the uncertainty surrounding trade negotiations and retaliatory tariffs affecting your business strategy?
Ford: It’s no secret retaliatory tariffs have impacted virtually everyone in agriculture, including farm families, rural business owners and the communities they call home. The ability to trade and export is critical for Land O’Lakes Inc., our member-owners and all of American agriculture. Trade will continue to be a top policy priority for Land O’Lakes as we head into 2019 – starting with a strong push for approval of the USMCA trade agreement and suspension of Section 232 and Section 301 tariffs that have led to retaliation from key trading partners. During the ongoing downturn in the ag economy, we need all hands on deck to push for market access and new trade opportunities for U.S. products.
Q: Can you briefly summarize your strategic vision for Land O’Lakes and advancements that you’d like to see under your leadership?
Ford: Quite simply, my vision is to use marketplace-back insights to solve the challenges facing agriculture and support the success of our members. We’re focused on building agility, connecting more directly with consumers, partnering in different ways with retailers and other CPG customers and investing in insights to drive a profitable path forward.
Because of our farmer-to-fork structure, Land O’Lakes can deliver for members and customers at every point along the value chain. Land O’Lakes is in the best position to help farmers help solve environmental challenges, feed a growing population and restore rural communities.
In addition, we want to partner with other innovators and are addressing challenges from different perspectives. For example, we are partnering with Uber Freight to leverage new and innovative technology to increase our competitive edge in a capacity-constrained freight market.
As for advancements, most importantly, I want to ensure Land O’Lakes continues to represent a powerful voice for rural America and our farmer-members. Bridging the divide between both way-of-life and levels of understanding among rural and urban populations benefits everyone.
Second, further advancing our e-business platform across the Land O’Lakes enterprise is a priority. More than ever, consumers want what they want, when they want it, all while knowing where their products – especially food – come from. Keeping up with consumer demands in an increasingly digital landscape is how we’ll stay competitive.
We are comfortable being uncomfortable and are excited about the level of disruption in our industry. Disruption favors the fearless innovator.
Q: You’ve had leading roles in several types of industries, but you’ve spoken about how an agricultural mission speaks to you. Why should young people and early career professionals, especially women, consider the agricultural field?
Ford: My career path didn’t follow a stereotypical linear trajectory, but I’m grateful for that. All of those prior roles within six different industries led me here; to an industry whose mission is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling I have ever worked towards. Agriculture and the food production industry are going through a time of unprecedented change. Finding a solution to the question of how we’re going to feed an estimated world population of 10 billion people by 2050 is a daunting task, but one I’m energized by. And I’m honored to be leading a team that’s as passionate about tackling this challenge as I am.
For early career professionals, especially women, considering a role in agriculture, I say: Join us. Women have always been involved in agriculture. Young people, we need you. We need innovative, outside-the-box, solution-oriented individuals on our team. I promise you will have made a terrific decision.