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Land O’Lakes CEO: Rural America is the new inner city

Melody Hahm
·West Coast Correspondent
·4 min read
Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford and journalist Jessica Yellin at the 2020 Upfront Summit
Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford and journalist Jessica Yellin at the 2020 Upfront Summit

While the urban world is talking about the power and promise of 5G, much of rural America is still having trouble getting online.

This week, the Federal Communications Commission approved a $20.4 billion program that could give six million rural homes and businesses access to high-speed broadband. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calls the initiative the “boldest step yet to bridge this [digital] divide,” but the CEO of one of the largest dairy cooperatives said it’s simply not enough.

“It’s not that that’s nothing. I mean, that’s real money. But it’s inadequate. And then I meet constantly with governors, and they’re putting something- 10 million in the budget or 20 million... And it feels like we’re in the couch looking for the quarters and nickels. And that’s not going to get us there. It is going to make us uncompetitive as a nation. We cannot just leave these communities behind,” Land O’Lakes chief executive Beth Ford said in an interview Thursday at the Upfront Summit in Pasadena, California.

Arden Hills, Minn.-based Land O’Lakes handles everything from agricultural production to manufacturing consumer goods like butter and eggs. The $15 billion dairy giant works with 4,400 members, the majority of whom are farmers.

This comes amid an existential plight for many farmers, with Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies increasing 20% in 2019. Farmers have been caught in the crosshairs of natural disasters and the ongoing trade wars. Still, U.S. farmers have shown unwavering — and growing — support for the Trump administration. Eighty-three percent of farmers and ranchers approve of the President’s job performance, according to Farm Journal’s latest poll.

When asked whether Ford has witnessed “any disillusionment among [2016] Trump voters,” she said many farmers aren’t passing the blame onto the President.

“It has been a very difficult couple of years. multiple years. Farm income is down, farmer suicides are up — they’re making no money. When I’m with farmers, they talk to me about things that we all talk about — our families’ healthcare access, investment in schools for their children, medical care access... and what they’re looking for in politics, because policy is critically important to agriculture, again, because of exports, tariffs, and all these other things. What they’re looking for in any politician, is support for and an understanding of broader issues,” she said.

Dairy cows on a farm (Land O'Lakes)
Dairy cows on a farm (Land O'Lakes)

In explaining the robust support for Trump, Ford drew out the overlap between military and Americans living in rural parts of the country.

“Nineteen percent of the population lives in rural America and they comprise 44% of the military. When the President of the United States or when anybody else asks them to stand in the breach for a trade arrangement that over the long term won’t be healthier, but are dealing with what they believe — and I think many industries would support this — that there’s unfair trade arrangements, that there’s intellectual property theft, things like that — they will do that. They do the hard work,” she said.

“What they’re looking for is an understanding that their communities and their families deserve and need investment. That’s why I say rural America is the new inner city, and no fresh food access, no medical access.. that is very problematic and we should all be concerned about that — not just people in rural areas,” she added.

With the Iowa caucuses taking place on Monday, Ford said there isn’t a Democratic candidate who stands out as the most effective in reaching the farmer demographic, though “all of them are making an effort.” She said Senator Amy Klobuchar has “done very well in the state of Minnesota.”

“You know, I am a realist. I say to our members, ‘We’re most interesting during the election cycle.’ And then folks move on.. We need to pay attention to this more than just during the election cycle, and not politicize this.”

Melody Hahm is Yahoo Finance’s west coast correspondent, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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