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Beth Ford Interviewed by Jessica Yellin | Upfront Summit 2020

Beth Ford
President and CEO at Land O'Lakes, Inc.
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Upfront Summit 2020
January 29 2020, Pasadena, CA, United States
Upfront Summit 2020
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Beth Ford Interviewed by Jessica Yellin | Upfront Summit 2020
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About speakers

Beth Ford serves as President and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc., a Fortune 200 food production and agribusiness company that is also a nearly 100-year-old farmer-owned cooperative. Beth's 34-year career spans six industries at seven companies. Since joining Land O’Lakes in 2011, she has held a variety of roles leading the company's farmer-to-fork business offerings. Today, she is a passionate advocate on behalf of farmers and rural America with the goal of connecting people, particularly in urban areas, to the farmers and rural communities who grow their food.
Author, Savage News, HarperCollins Spring 2019,
Formerly CNN Chief White House
Correspondent, National Political Correspondent. Alum: ABC News, WTVT-Tampa, Central Florida News 13.
Center for Public Integrity, Board of Directors
USC Annenberg CCLP

About the talk

Topic: Business

CEO of Land O'Lakes Beth Ford talks with #NewsNotNoise 's Jessica Yellin about the Fortune 200 company's structure and work with farmers; how technology plays a role in the business; sustainability and the "barn to bio-gas"; and why she believes that "rural America is the new inner city" and what all Americans can do about it.

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I'm Jessica yellin excited to be here with Beth Ford CEO of Land O Lakes to take a look at Rural America. Thank you for being here station. I heard 00:00 Land O'Lakes when I have to do this and I thought rate butter. Thank you. Number one leaving butter butter is back people fat is healthy, but it's get 00:10 there with that. You're much more than that. You're a 15 billion dollar a year Revenue your Farmers Collective. Give us an understanding of what land 00:19 everybody knows Our Heritage Dairy business in Land O'Lakes was started about a hundred years ago by Upper Midwest Dairy Farmers who tried to get 00:28

power in the channel get their sweet cream butter into population centers in the East so they formed a Cooperative today. We are a fortune 200 food 00:34 production and agribusiness, but we retain a Cooperative structure. We retain farmer ownership. We actually that that success that they had from 00:42 forming a marketing Cooperative translated into forming a supply Cooperative. So we have animal feed Serena is our brand for animal feed animal. 00:52 Nutrition and we also are in technology Winfield Technologies where we work with Farmers on their land to enable sustainable production and optimize 01:00

production over long time. So we really do go from the farm. We all have farmer ownership all the way to retail 01:10 you rather. Not bad recently saying that the 01:18 plate of American farmers is being ignored by most of America. You said as a country, we aren't paying nearly enough attention. What aren't we paying 01:27 enough attention to what would you like this audience to know but I think I'm two or three things when I get interviewed and certainly over the past 01:36

year. This interview has been related to tariffs and trade and trade Arrangements trade is critically important for the profitability of the American 01:44 Farmer the most efficient and productive Farmer in the world. So trade is critical that has been a net pause. For exports but over the last couple 01:53 beers obviously traded and issues have been pressuring. There's also been a long. Of time. We're very low commodity prices were present in the 02:03 farmers. Haven't been making money the average income for a farmer in 2017 was $43,000. The median was - 1500 02:12

they had to work. The median was - 1500 the average was $43,000. And so when I say this and this particular off at I wrote 02:22 that also came at the time last year where we had just disastrous weather for planting season in the spring and farming is an outdoor 02:32 Sport and weather has them has an impact and so many farmers couldn't get planted as so now we've got Banksy risking 02:42 their portfolio against operating loans. We've got trade issues. We have bad weather and so it's been a particularly fraught. Of time. Stepping over 02:52

to your last comment on Rural communities recognize that farmers are sitting around communities in Rural America. This isn't just a Midwest Peace by 03:01 the way there in rural areas in every state in the country. And so those those communities rely on the profitability of the 03:10 American Farmer and other Industries. And so what's happening is that because of farmers haven't been making money. They're not going to the diner. 03:20 They're not going to the hardware store. They lose their grocery store. There's a shortage of 40,000 doctors in Rural America 3 of 4 3 of 4 03:27

farmers are Farm Workers have been directly impacted by the opioid crisis directly impacted by the opioid crisis. There's a lack of technology in 03:37 these communities. There is rural poverty one and four children are living in poverty in Rural America. There's a homelessness issue. So when I speak 03:45 to this I remind people it doesn't stop just at the farm and this strength of our food. Production system has been a key lever for our national 03:54 security and I think sometimes I've lived in cities and my my entire adult life we forget the share Destiny between rural and urban areas and why 04:04

we should want investment in these communities is absolutely a pillar of our strength and critically important on to deal with rural poverty 04:14 Rural America is the new intercept some of the issues that are in the news you say that we spend too much time talking 04:22 about tariffs when we talk to you but I have to ask the trade war with China has been devastating to some American farmers. The White House has 04:31 announced a new deal. They say that China will now increased its what does purchasing from the u.s. To 40 billion. That's more than double what it 04:39

used to be. So is it plausible how has this announcement already impacted Farmers or has it what we we did not 04:48 a good start to Go at the same at that rate now, that's because I'm certain that they pre-bought the spring. They probably 04:56 pre-bought a lot of the items. They needed as we step into the spring reminder that back. Of time. We were talking about that 17 to 20 billion, 05:06 which is what it had been in 2017 or so at the peak. It was a lot of soybean production going from the Midwest price 60% of beans for being shipped 05:16

into China and that was to support animal feed for the hog population in China. China has had African swine flu, which is impacted the 05:25 hog population in over half of the hog population had to be destroyed. So they're going to have to repurpose or repopulate the hog population. So go 05:35 to your question do we see this as possible? Will they weren't defined on saying you have to do this many this much in terms of soybean purchase this 05:43 much in terms of dairy this much in terms of poultry. They will have any variety of access to poultry Swine to 05:53

soybeans to corn to ethanol and so we'll see we have yet to see good start to move. We haven't seen the market move. So I haven't seen the corn price 06:02 of the beam price. In fact is coming under support levels now $9 or so a bushel for bees and so I haven't seen good start to move yet. But 06:11 I know that there is a focus on saying we're going to go ahead in and see good sense of relief things. I've read and heard is that kind of create a 06:21 new relationship, you know, the American Farmer worked hard to get these relationships. So they're selling into China and now they're buying from 06:30

Brazil Lake. Are they going to break that deal and start buying from the tickets the question, I mean all of us business and human nature you have a 06:36 relationship and then that relationship goes through bumps. There's it severed and so now they're other supply house in the market place. We're going 06:46 to see those relationships were strong weave. Chinese delegation since different Farm States. We're we're hopeful you know, what what I would say 06:56 is that farmers don't want handouts. I don't know any farmer who wants a handout and the subsidy they want no subsidies. They want a 07:06

competitive Marketplace they want to compete and so I would say my bet is on the resilience of the American Farmer in 07:15 terms of connecting that relationship to get the goods moving 07:25 hacks the farmers in the US 07:28 well as starting to shut down in China and Transit and 07:37 flow of goods to starting to to taper off. I don't know that any of us know what's going to happen. And I'm not sure we have the clear 07:47 picture yet that I would have guess. We probably don't write environment that disruption in operating environment is 07:57

favorable for any industry not forget agriculture. I could say I could go back in the Indian industry, 08:06 So we're going to see where we're trying to look in and make sure our folks on the ground understand what's happening 08:16 the president sign this week and then move on to some add specific things to 08:23 deal with China Sorrows Mexico and New trade agreement and I understand I didn't realize this till we spoke earlier the mix-up Mexico is our biggest 08:33 market for dairy and corn Dairy and corn dairy market the number one corn market for exports. It's a number 3 cattle market for Mexico 08:41

Mexico to Hewitt. Trade partner and that has been advantageous. I think the start of NAFTA there was probably eight billion dollars and exports for 08:51 agriculture and it moved up to over 40 billion during the process of NAFTA is an important Market as well. And dairy 08:59 really we've got more Dairy access is not huge into Canada and really it level the playing field for some prices for they were offering farmers in 09:09 Dairy in Canada. So it's some relief 09:18 stabilize in the operating varmint. That's great. Now if we could just get some decent 09:22

weather that would get it that would be helpful. Let's talk about at topic. It's near and dear to this audience is my research. I learned that there 09:32 are facial recognition programs for cows. 09:42 Business we use satellite technology. We use data silos predictive models all the things that you know that businesses use that the facial recognition 09:52 piece was because we can use that capability to look and say what should a cow does weight be what is their structure do we see an issue in terms of 10:01

nutrition for that cow? And so you can look across or hurt and do a match versus a Baseline and then from that we know hey from a priority 10:10 perspective. You should be paying attention here. We also are able to track 10:18 myself or my family. But yes, that is what we do so we can 10:22 use that or we look at the nutritional content the muscle mass we have what should the the cow be be supported with Walter use Tek to 10:31 decide what should be grown where or how much nutrients should be put into what part of the soil? It is very 10:41

important for the way we think of sustainable food production in the future. So we're using analytics were using data. We capture data at the in the 10:51 very small level in each field and every field is not the same and so you don't want to over apply either seeds or crop protection items are 11:00 fertilizer in areas that aren't fertile. That's just a waste of money is not good for the environment. So we use our satellite technology are 11:09 predicted models that allow us to see what the application should be in each part of a field and I'm within partner with our agronomist right with a 11:16

farmer to enable more sustainable and cost-effective profitable production for the long-term sustainability 11:26 for you and your Farmers one example, I read about was here in California and effort you're working 11:35 on I think I'll get this right. It's the poop to pipeline. Hope to buy one. Elizabeth lever so here in California. You have one of the biggest 11:45 dairy-producing states in the country here in California in the Central Valley. In fact, a lot of our farmers are producers are here in the Central 11:55

Valley. And so at the same time that the state government here was requiring a reduction in methane for greenhouse gas emission and I'm really focused 12:04 on climate. Will you just explained on methane Dairy Connection in case people don't know gas from a far from a cow and that you don't capture what is 12:13 the issue and then again that that greenhouse gas emission that is causing part of the problem was caused greenhouse gas emission one of the drivers 12:22 the number one is of course, but we all know it's a fossil fuels and transportation and things that animal production of methane that the the 12:32

government hear was requiring. I'm requesting a reduction of 40% for methane by state 2023. So what was productive 12:40 Again, I think of farmers as the original environmentalist, they have everything at stake in terms of handing their land over and their profitability 12:50 by improving their sustainable production. So we have a number of producers that have their herds up in Center Valley near Pipeline. And what we did 12:57 is we partner with the state government here who had an allocation of funding and at the same time. We allowed our Farmers to take a loan against the 13:07

equity they have in the business and then they were able to get a digester a methane digester and anaerobic digester and what 13:14 happens is manure goes into a pet. It's separated. The solids are dried and used as fertilizer organic food for lizer on the on the land that the 13:24 liquids are then in the gas has been captured under a cover and then that is clean. And so you have biogas that investment from the 13:34 state government connected to gas kid to these digesters worth collect. And that gas that clean gas is then pipe 13:44

down here to Los Angeles to run city buses and other gases and we're partnering with companies like Chevron in other ways to say how do you market 13:53 biogas? So don't so creative ways of the circular economy that allow us to take advantage of the things that are happening 14:03 in the environment. But at the same time make sure we're dressing different concerns and climate and it does exist already are city buses are running 14:13 on its here because we have large size herds here, but we're doing this 14:21

again working with and we're not the only company I'm working on this as well. As other places realities of farming is the women 14:31 are sometimes empowered in the farming Community. Would you give us a snapshot of how many farms are run by women? And how did they come to have this 14:41 prominence? Well, you know, what's so interesting. It's always been involved in farming, but women were often not on the title of the farm is the 14:48 largest landowner in Iowa for Farmland is a widow. There was 6% of farmland. And you know, by the way 96% of 14:56

farms are still family-owned. So this idea of the big industrial Farm It Maybe not in reality Farms to get bigger because people go out of business 15:06 they can't stand or they want to stay in business or their the neighbor is going out and they don't have anybody to take over the farm. So they sell 15:14 it to somebody else who who's there and who can who can farm the land and have always been involved in farming around the world women are huge and 15:21 farming and it is a way they reinvest in their children and their communities. They start up businesses. We have an NGO called Venture 37 repaired 15:29

with the V Foundation where we're funded by usaid. We do work around the world multiple projects to help especially female farmers. 15:38 Who who are Ended up the breadwinner in the support for their communities and their families have always been involved. 15:46 But when people think of farmers, they think of the mail pickup truck and of course there a lot of male Farmers to do a lot of male-female couples 15:56 and their more prominent in what we're trying to do. And since I took over as CEO about a year-and-a-half ago was really help people understand how 16:05

enter women are in farming and Agriculture and people don't really understand that. This is a great career for women in that 16:13 women have been involved in food production for forever 1/3 of farms are rent in the US and by women 16:22 about the rule America is the new inner-city and a lot of the challenges 16:29 Farmers to face some of its natural disasters, but some of its political so I'd like to talk about politics for a moment and in our current climate we 16:38 know that there is Urban-rural divide in our politics and that the rural voter is a big part of the trunk success in Trump's engine. I'm 16:48

wondering understanding the Rural America is not a monolith Nora Farmers that you run a company. So is there any disillusionment among 16:58 former Trump voters with what's happened in the last for three-plus years you don't I wouldn't say and I must Farmers 17:08 quite a bit. I don't know about disillusionment. And here's the here's where we say. It has been a very difficult couple of years 17:18 multiple farm and come down farmer suicides up. Making no 17:26 money when I'm with Farmers they talk to me about the things that we all talked about our families Health Care access investment in 17:36

schools for their children Medical Care access and what they're looking for in politics because policy is 17:45 critically important to agriculture again because of exports interest in all these other things what they're looking for in a in any politician 17:55 anybody is support for and an understanding of broader issues. Do you care about them? Do you respect them? You know, I respect their hard work. 18:04 I respect them as human being so I don't know that it says softening. I think what they're looking for in terms of connection with 18:13

with politicians is do you understand my issues. Will you help me make investment in these communities? Will you help me 18:23 in my Family the same way you think of the urban areas and don't don't just look past us. And is there a scent that they've gotten the attention they 18:33 need and at the trade was the trade War forgiven now, this will seem simplistic but I don't think it is 18:42 19% of the population lives in Rural America and they comprise 44% of the military when the president United States or when anybody else 18:50

asked them to stand in the breach for a trade Arrangement that over the long-term will be healthier but are dealing with what they believe and 19:00 I think many Industries would support this that there's unfair trade Arrangements that there's an electro property to have things like that. 19:10 And when somebody says we need you to stand in the breach, they will do that. They do the hard work and that's why I say 19% of population 44% of the 19:20 military is very similar to me and at the same time what they're looking for is An understanding that their communities and their families deserve 19:29

and need investment. That's why I say roll America the new inner-city and no fresh food access. No medical that is that is very problematic 19:37 and we should all be concerned about that. Not just people in rural areas. Is there a Democratic candidate in the field that speaks most Rural America 19:47 is resonating among the farmers New Deal. I haven't necessarily heard boy. This is this person in the Democratic field is separating themselves. 19:55 I certainly am obviously track policy statements from each of the candidates. We don't get involved in presidential elections. I want to be why we 20:05

work with both Republicans and Democrats in DC, but I do believe this is a time in 20:15 I need the year where we start to hear more conversations about necessary investment. Do I see that? Somebody has separated themselves. I haven't seen 20:25 that making a special effort to connect to Farmers or not. I know you're from 20:32 Minnesota. She's 83. 20:40 She's she's looking forward to this whole thing and I were just being over with frankly. She just wants to move on 20:50 DeSoto. She speaks to Farmers an effort 20:54

realest. You know what I say to our members were most interesting during the election cycle and then folks 21:04 move on and I would Advocate and I appreciate you guys allowing me to be here. I would Advocate we need to pay attention to this more than just during 21:14 the election cycle. And not politicize this this is a national security issue in my view. This is a necessary investment for communities that deserve 21:23 these Investments. Can we just get this is there such as you said that it's not wired for Broadband. 21:32

Is there a holistic policy solution you would like influencers can get behind all of these dishes 21:40 at the same time. Will we know all of us a fundamental requirement is technology access? We should think of it like mail delivery and electricity. We 21:50 have a 1930s Rural Electric initiative. It should go across the country is 150 billion dollar problem into me. It is the first infrastructure 21:59 investment that this Administration and administration should support we're not just going to feed the geography, you know, that's in the middle or in 22:07

the world areas. And if a third or / 1/3 don't have Broadband think of change technology is enabling Act. Not 22:16 having access to data analytics technology. That's just stunning to me. And so we I've been pushing with my team 22:26 in Partnership my chief technology officer now Teddy, but Kelly is leaving the commission on Rural Broadband for the FCC because then you can take 22:36 advantage of telemedicine tell education you are there. So many of the things that you could do with a supporting Broadband 22:44

investment. I just saw today the administration and the FCC announce the 20 billion dollar investment and it's not that that's nothing. I mean that's 22:53 real money, but it's inadequate. It's inadequate we know it and then I constantly with Governors and they're putting something 10 million in the 23:02 budget or 20 million. I was here with Governor news and you know what it feels like we're in the couch looking for the quarters in the Nichols, right? 23:10 And that's not going to get us there is going to make us on competitive as a nation. We cannot just Leave these communities behind. So to me, it's a 23:18

fundamental policy issue on my part of the Business Roundtable one on their board. We're trying to I'm trying to work with that telecom group or that 23:27 Technology Group to say is their policy position we can have just to put a face on it. You said before that some of these people are working their 23:35 farm from early in the morning and then after hours they're driving their kids to McDonald's so their kids can do their homework on McDonalds Wi-Fi 23:42 cuz they don't have Wi-Fi at how soon is there a person who's the champion of this? Is there somebody to support his 23:50

who's carrying? The banner is it you? Well, I certainly speak about it a lot. I would think it would whack accuracy to say. I'm the only 24:00 one who speaks to it. I think it's it's a I'm fortunate to have a position like this where I can go and advocate for this and it is a priority 24:09 policy decision that I believe needs to be made. I've heard a lot of different. Even in the government II her bag has been talking about this 24:19 the FCC. We are determined by at our board meeting. But what I'm trying to do is humanise this in your thank you for using an example, you know, I use 24:29

that example of speaking under a tent in the cornfield in Indiana and I think you guys are used to doing is like your wiring up your you know, your 24:39 your phone and you're figuring out a way so that you can get this in your cornfield so that you can be efficient as farmers and it's not complaining 24:46 to say this isn't adequate it's not complaining to ask for investment and request investment. And so I I think it's fortunate to be in a position to 24:56 to push this issue into to give voice to it. But we we need to make people aware funny. I want to ask a little bit about you and your biography it is 25:06

rare for a woman to be in your position running such a large company. It is even more where to find a woman who is openly gay in that position. In 25:15 fact You're the one that's it. So how is this going to challenge for you or how have you found it? Not at all 25:24 challenging. What lessons can you share with us about being unusual in a position? First of all. It's just my 25:34 life. So I don't really think of it is so unique or interesting or or different so but I appreciate a couple things. I want to be just kind of pushing 25:44

it aside. I think that this is what I heard from so many people that right when this was announced that I was to see you and understand that this is 25:53 me on this is was was of the time and all male board 28 board members home at almost told you I haven't just where I wanted him. 26:02 Give us a lesson. I would say is no results matter and they I feel connected to 26:12 them and that is been beneficial more importantly for the community by anytime. I think you could bring your authentic self to work. It's really 26:22

critically important and that I've heard from so many parents who said thank you because my in the weather is my third my child has come out to me or 26:30 this gives us hope it's I think it's a hopeful moment you want I meant The families who written made my daughter's come out when I can have a 26:37 conversation with her about her life, but it is so emotional where I can tell there was a man who is standing next to me. And I've said I was 26:47 waiting to come up and it was a speaker and I said, oh, let me introduce myself on this before and he said do I know who you are? I said, okay, and he 26:56

said this is a big man and he's probably in the 60s and he started to shake and he's he started to get teary and I knew when I just went on 27:04 next time I said, it's okay and he said my my son my son is gay and I said, he's lucky to have a dad like you and he said I'm so proud of you and I'm 27:14 so proud of your bored these moments, you know, this is a privilege. It's a privilege that you would find interest to allow me to come here to put 27:22 voice for things against things that I think are critically important. And if the fact that I was named CEO give somebody some moment of Hope 27:31

Then that's that's a bit of Joy. That's a fortune. 27:41 backboard Thank you for being here today and for what you do. Thank you. 27:51

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