By early 2019, she was alarmed that many small towns and rural residents lacked high-speed internet service, which she feared would leave them behind in the 21st century economy. She recognized the technology deficit would greatly reduce access to education and health care and harm job creation. Ford became hell-bent on securing broadband funding at the federal level.
Less than three years later, on Nov. 15, she was on the White House lawn to witness President Biden’s signing of a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included $65 billion for broadband.
“I couldn’t be happier, “ Ford said, as she ticked off the names of several Land O’Lakes leaders who helped her build a national coalition that was unrelenting in pressing for broadband funding.
She recalls telling her core team: “Look what you did. We know this is so important to all of us, and look at how you drove change.”
In an interview with Twin Cities Business, Ford described the steps that she and Land O’Lakes took to build national awareness of the technology gap, to create the American Connection Project to leverage political support, and to work with powerful chief executives in the Business Roundtable to elevate the importance of a bipartisan infrastructure package.
From ‘60 Minutes’ to Fortune
Ford wasn’t shy about seizing national platforms, which she saw as opportunities to educate and build support. Beyond making the case for expanded broadband through media opinion pieces, she was the focus of a television report in 2019 that allowed her to share her rural perspectives through a CBS interview with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.” In that CBS segment, Ford was dubbed “the farmer’s advocate.” She has also used her selection as one of Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” to chronicle how technology has improved farm equipment and practices, but also spotlight the digital divide between rural and urban areas.
Ford said she and her team talked about the creation of rural internet depots in small towns. “We have to have a place to lay a line in a town,” Ford said. “[The Wi-Fi depot] could be a gathering place. It could offer tele-education, provide access to college courses. It could offer access to a doctor in a private room through telemedicine.”
Near the end of 2019, she traveled to Washington state to seek a partnership with Microsoft’s CEO. “I had a conversation with Satya Nadella up in Microsoft’s headquarters, and we talked about a technology partnership in agriculture, but also about closing this digital divide,” Ford said.
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020, and it immediately revealed the severity of the urban-rural digital divide. Ford and her Land O’Lakes colleagues had a greater sense of urgency, because of the pandemic’s digital inequities. “We turned on, with partners, over 3,000 Wi-Fi hotspots across 49 states, where you can drive up and get access to Wi-Fi, to broadband, to finish your homework, to access a doctor,” Ford said.
Some Land O’Lakes local retailers partnered with internet service providers and used Microsoft airband technology to extend access to Wi-Fi in small communities, she said.
Land O’Lakes leaders also used their proximity to political power to advocate for measures that would make it possible for rural residents to get necessary services. “We wrote a letter to all of the governors and said, ‘We need variances for telemedicine appointments,’ ’’ Ford recalled. “We partnered with the Mayo Clinic first, and then with the Cleveland Clinic, with the U of M hospitals.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, Ford said Land O’Lakes and the health care providers wanted states to alter regulations, so prescriptions could be written without in-person visits, health providers would get the same reimbursement rates for virtual and in-person visits, and patients could access virtual mental health services across state borders.
Broadband campaign goes into overdrive
As remote work and distance learning took hold across the United States, Ford said she and her Land O’Lakes broadband team recognized they needed to expand and elevate their efforts. “We needed to start amplifying our voice and getting more partners in this mission,” Ford said.
“We formed the American Connection Project that now has 174 members,” she said. Cargill and Polaris are among the 174 businesses and organizations that have mobilized to increase access to high-speed internet service.
Simultaneously, Land O’Lakes members and board members were activated to contact their elected leaders to support broadband funding. “I was in Kansas with the governor from Kansas and with one of our board members who runs a local cooperative there,” Ford said. “He wrote, in partnership with that governor, an op-ed targeting the need for infrastructure investment.”
Ford’s political capital also extended to the national Business Roundtable, where she serves on the board of directors with top executives from other large companies. The Business Roundtable, currently chaired by Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, supports public policies that promote economic growth.
Ford is a member of the Business Roundtable’s infrastructure committee. Chuckling about her strong advocacy approach, Ford said, “The Business Roundtable would probably tell you that I’ve been the most active voice in this discussion around rural communities, access, and technology.”
When the infrastructure bill passed the U.S. House in early November—months after it secured Senate approval—Ford was a recognizable figure in Washington, D.C. “I’ve met with members of the administration and members of the House and Senate on this topic a number of different ways,” she said. That’s why she received and accepted a White House invitation to be present for the infrastructure bill’s signing.
“It was a pivotal moment, because what we want to do is recognize—I think in a healthy way—that this was bipartisan,” Ford said. “I thought it was important that we be represented, we being rural areas and agriculture, our [Land O’Lakes] team, and all who pushed for this investment.”
Deploying broadband funding
In October, Ford did a joint event with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “It looks like the Commerce Department is going to be the leader on some of this investment implementation, especially around technology and broadband,” Ford said. Both Raimondo and Ford spoke about the need for public/private partnerships to maximize the federal broadband dollars.
Teddy Bekele, chief technology officer for Land O’Lakes, has been working closely with Ford on efforts to increase high-speed internet access in Minnesota and across the nation. Bekele chairs the Minnesota Governor’s Broadband Task Force.
Minnesota would receive a minimum of $100 million in broadband funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, according to a White House fact sheet. The money can be used for broadband infrastructure and to help low-income families gain internet access.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature earmarked $70 million in funding for the state’s Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant program. That $70 million is coming out of funding in the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March.
While federal and state officials will lead the distribution of broadband funds and oversee program implementation, Ford is excited that Land O’Lakes created the American Connection Corps in April.
In conjunction with Lead for America, a Kansas-based nonprofit, 50 young people were selected to be American Connection Corps fellows for two years. The technology fellows are based out of local governments, nonprofits and community foundations, and Ford envisions them helping town leaders to increase technology access.
At the federal level, a Land O’Lakes leader is providing input on an ongoing basis about broadband needs. In collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bekele chairs the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force.
‘Using your voice’
This year, Land O’Lakes is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding when Minnesota dairy farmers formed a cooperative to support their financial futures. Ford’s co-op members belong to both major political parties. “We all focus on policy, not politics,” Ford said. “We always try to move the ball forward.”
As she reflects on the Land O’Lakes campaign for broadband funding, she said it demonstrates “the power of using your voice.” But she emphasized that Land O’Lakes also recognized “the power of asking others to be along with you.”
While she educated urban residents about the broadband access gap in rural communities, she also framed internet infrastructure as an American issue.
“We’re a cooperative,” Ford said. “We’re big business. But the reality is we can’t write some check and solve this problem. It is so foundational to all of us.”
Ultimately, she said, there was broad agreement in Congress that rural communities must be economically healthy to provide food for the nation and global consumers. Ford also defined internet access as an equity issue in farm country and other U.S. neighborhoods that are underserved.
“If we all agree these are important American issues, which is where we go, then we should all want to work together,” Ford said.