Microsoft and Land O'Lakes are investing in rural communities

Beth Ford is president and CEO of Land O’Lakes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

America’s farmers are hopeful, but struggling.

This spring, massive supply chain and distribution disruptions caused by the shutdowns, combined with stockpiling by worried shoppers, decimated grocery stocks. Restaurants closed, leaving farmers and ranchers without a market for their livestock and crops. Then, this summer, wildfires, drought and severe storms impacted production of corn, peanuts, cotton and much more across the country.

    Now, however, America’s farmers face the added stress of trying to get their kids access to online school and their grandparents to the virtual doctor. But when your internet signal is weak, do you utilize what limited bandwidth you have for the tools that operate your farm or for your child to finish her math assignment? Or do neither of those things happen so grandma can see the doctor online? When you don’t have reliable and fast digital connectivity, none of it happens.
    It is vital to the families who own and operate more than 95% of America’s farms to be connected. Farmers now have access to digital tools, like dashboards, to help them decide where to plant and fertilize, which fields have the best yields and which animals are thriving. And yet, one in four don’t have any internet access.
    High-speed internet is the electricity of our generation. Americans who don’t have reliable access to the internet feel it when they are acting as teachers in their homes or trying to help their kids keep up with their studies. Roughly 16 million K-12 students and 400,000 public school teachers lack reliable access to the internet required for learning. They feel it when they need to go to the doctor, as telemedicine visits during the pandemic reach an all-time high and patients seek to avoid exposure at health care facilities. They feel it when they are trying to steward the land wisely as their parents did.

    At Land O’Lakes, our farmer-owned coop does business in all 50 states, touching 10,000 rural communities and half the harvested acres in the nation, and like the farmers who own us, we are hopeful and resilient, even in these circumstances. We follow their lead by reaching out to partners like Microsoft, Polaris, Tractor Supply Company, Business Roundtable and Mayo Clinic, and together we are addressing the problem of connectivity.
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    We launched the American Connection Project, which joined together over 110 major organizations to advocate to close the digital divide and to turn on nearly 2,300 free public Wi-Fi locations in 48 states across the country. Up to 40 families come to most of these sites every day, staying for an average of 90 minutes as they pull up, stay in their cars, maintain social distancing and access Wi-Fi for telehealth appointments or distance learning assignments.
    We welcome other companies and organizations to join the project. Each business that signs on brings unique assets and strengths to the effort. Many partners are turning on Wi-Fi at their locations, supplying hardware, connecting telehealth providers and much more.

      Together, we are advocating for three key principles: robust federal funding for broadband infrastructure, improved broadband connectivity mapping and better coordination of federal and state agencies to deploy funding.
      We must help as many people as we can as quickly as we can. Human connection was as necessary to our grandparents as it is to our children. Electricity brought them together and forward. Digital connectivity can do the same. Today, let’s celebrate the farmers who are essential to the nation’s food supply and economic recovery and recognize not only what we have to gain, but what we cannot lose.
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