One in four farmers lacks internet access. Beth Ford, CEO of the 100-year-old farm-owned cooperative, Land O’ Lakes, has made it her mission to get farmers connected and close the digital divide.
“[Broadband access] should be a right. This is the way we live our lives. This should be like mail delivery and electricity,” she said at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit.
In January, the Federal Communications Commission approved a $20 billion, 10-year plan to extend broadband internet service to underserved rural areas. While Ford acknowledges that the plan is a good start, she says it’s more like a $150 billion problem.
“Nineteen percent of America lives in rural America. They comprise 44% of the military. These are people willing to do the hard work for our country. And we must invest in them, in these communities, to make sure we have a vibrant America.”
Ford said the coronavirus pandemic has only worked to highlight the need for the internet in rural areas, now that so many people are working and schooling from home.
“Oftentimes the teachers are having to drive out [to the farm] with this paper homework so these kids can do homework because you don't have enough technology on the farm, or you've got to run farm equipment,” she said. “It's really unacceptable. And this isn't a rural issue. This is an American issue.”
Land O’ Lakes has partnered with dozens of companies including Microsoft (MSFT), Cargill, Polaris (PII) and Tractor Supply (TSCO) to help fast-track rural broadband efforts and bring free WiFi to docking stations outside of buildings.
“Technology is an enabler to close the digital divide,” Ford said. “We should be excited about the ways that we can think about that, including technology as an enabler for data and analytics, for sustainable production so that farmers and farming can be part of the solution for climate change and for other bigger problems in society.”
Ford is no stranger to making progressive moves. In February, she announced that Land O’ Lakes would drop the image of a Native American woman that had been part of its butter packaging since 1928. It’s being replaced with a wheat symbol and pictures of trees to better represent that the company is owned by its member farmers.
For the third year in a row Ford was ranked on Fortune’s Top 50 Most Powerful Women list. The first openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Ford said her 83-year-old mother continues to be her biggest role model.
“We didn't have two nickels to rub together, but I remember so vividly her telling me we would have to go take a meal to a family in need at Thanksgiving. I'm thinking, well, we don't have tons, but we'd go and she'd say to me — do you understand your responsibility? You have been given so much. You don't disappoint, understand this is about somebody else.”
Alexis Christoforous is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AlexisTVNews.