A Conversation with Next Century Cities and Land O’Lakes’ Director of Federal Government and Industry Relations, Michael Daniels

 

Francella Ochillo: We would like to know what you guys have been doing over the past year. We’re constantly thinking about “How do you achieve universal broadband access, and how do you achieve that goal without doing a disservice to one group or another?” One of the things that we worry about sometimes is the way that rural is pitted against urban, as if it’s one versus the other, when I think that we need to be thinking about how both can be addressed. What do you want municipal leaders to know about the work that you guys are doing, and how can they support it?

Land O’ Lakes: Land O’ Lakes is a 100-year-old farmer-owned cooperative. We are made up of four different business units. The Dairy Unit is what most people know us from– the butter and the cheese that you all see in the grocery store. There are 1,700 dairy farmers who are owners within the co-op. We also have Purina Animal Nutrition, which feeds large animals. Then we also have a business called Winfield United, which is a crop input business, so that includes seed, fertilizer, and other things that a farmer would put on their land. The Winfield and Purina products are sold through a vast network of agricultural retailers across the nation and also our member cooperatives.

There are around 1,000 agricultural retailers that are dotted throughout rural America, many of those are cooperatives themselves. So in some cases our members are also co-ops. It’s through this network that we touch about half of the harvested acreage in the country and about 10,000 rural communities.

The fourth business unit is called Truterra. It’s the newest business unit, and it helps our farmers improve productivity and sustainable outcomes on their land.

Those are the business units of Land O’ Lakes. When our CEO Beth Ford took over that job a couple of years ago, she went out and visited these members all around the country. Among other things, she very quickly learned and realized that there’s this great connectivity gap in many of these communities. If you live and work in rural America, there’s a good chance that you don’t have access to quality high-speed broadband. Not only does that affect the on-farm productivity for our members, but it is the vitality, the livelihood of rural America at large. During COVID-19 this hits harder than ever – access to health care, access to distance learning.

We have a program at Land O’ Lakes where we give opportunities for work to spouses of our members that they can do from home to supplement the income, but again, without the internet they can’t do that. So it’s a thread that goes through these communities. Without connectivity they can’t do any of these things. Once Beth realized this she made it a priority and we started focusing very heavily on this issue. If you go to about a year ago, part of our mission was to determine what we could do to advocate for long term policy solutions, recognizing that we are not a service provider, but we have a vast rural footprint with membership all over the country.

We focused on three main policy priorities. Number one, the need for significant federal investment in broadband infrastructure. We know that in most of these places with very sparse, disparate populations there’s just no business case for a private company to go out and build these networks because if all they are doing is recouping monthly charges from a customer for example, they would have to charge them some exorbitant fee to make up the cost of the capital expenditure. Number two, the need to improve the federal broadband maps, because those are universally considered flawed, incorrect, and faulty. Those maps dictate where the scarce federal dollars go, so as long as those maps are unreliable we can’t efficiently deploy federal dollars. Number three, better coordination among the government agencies that work in the space, whether that is at the federal level or the state level. Beth looked at this as a CEO from a business perspective. If she was charging her team to do a project, she would appoint a lead, a project manager of sorts that reports to her and makes sure that people in this business unit were coordinating. It’s a bit disconcerting that there are so many government programs that are operating in this space that aren’t necessarily talking to each other.

If you fast forward to March of last year (2020) when COVID hit and people were working from home, we decided we had to accelerate this work, and so we did that on two complimentary work streams. Number one, we began to organize this coalition of stakeholders that we talked to you about. The idea there is to advocate for long term sustainable change through government action on those three principles. Second to that, Land O’ Lakes began turning on publicly available WiFi at many of our rural brick and mortar locations. Initially we did about 150 locations in 15 states, and to date we are at nearly 3,000 locations in 49 states, with the help of many of our partners that are in the policy coalition. The WiFi project helps to address the immediate need right now when we are in this crisis, but recognizing that we cannot possibly expect people to park in parking lots to get online forever, which is why we are also working on policy change through the coalition.

We started the policy coalition with five founding members, Land O’ Lakes plus four others back in April, and over the intervening eight months we have sent several letters to policy makers including governors across the country, the President, and Congressional leadership in Washington to outline our focus and introduce ourselves. We sent a formal launch letter in July with 49 members that signed on at that point. As of today, our number is over 140 members in the coalition. It’s a very diverse group. While our focus is rural, we have members that represent urban communities, because those issues exist in urban communities as well. We have nonprofits, we have trade associations, internet service providers, companies and organizations from the healthcare sector, from technology, from universities, hospitals – all different groups that ordinarily might not come together on a singular issue. In this case being connected is the thread that connects all of us, no matter what our individual business reasons might be.

FO: Since you all represent such a wide variety of membership, what is the most frustrating aspect when communicating with leaders in Washington? Sometimes when we are talking to members in municipalities that are far away from D.C., there’s a disillusionment with the idea that “Washington doesn’t care about us. No one really understands how serious the digital divide is for us.” There are usually constant themes of frustration that come up over and over again. Sometimes it’s difficult to convey that human impact because in D.C. a lot of what we have to do, especially in our filings, is you have to make the dollars and cents case for policy change. What is the human impact piece that you want people to know about the urgency and seriousness of this issue as well as the people that are in this coalition?

Land O’ Lakes: I want to reiterate that we are still sort of building this thing as we fly, so we have engaged with Congressional offices and policymakers, but we do have a long term plan that we plan to execute. Part of what we’re doing now is tracking some of the data at the WiFi locations —nothing that invades privacy, but things such as number of users and length of stay. What we are learning through this is the heartbreaking reality that these sites are getting the kind of use that we expected they might, so we can go to a policymaker and say, “Look. We have all of these WiFi locations and they are getting used. That’s the proof that these communities need it.”

We also have a map, americanconnection.io, it’s a digital map. You can enter an address and it will show you all of the locations around that address where there is a WiFi location. We are updating that all of the time. It is not a replacement for the federal maps, but it is a directional guide about where there is a need. We know that there are these WiFi hotspots in parking lot, people are running to use them, and that indicates to us that there is a need in that community for this service.

Another thing that we are working to do now is collecting stories from our members, anecdotal stories. We have begun to organize this within Land O’ Lakes, but we are asking members of the coalition as well. Tell us the story of a parent who has two kids at home and maybe only one device and a slow bandwidth. For us we have on-farm stories where there is all sorts of cool precision agriculture technology where the tractors practically drive themselves, but if there isn’t broadband to the field, they can’t upload any of the data to be more efficient on their land. The connectivity issue is a force multiplier. It impacts our food supply, it is a national security issue when you think about a safe and secure food supply in operation. We don’t have to rely on any other country for our food. Rural hospitals are closing at a rapid rate, so access to your doctor from a telehealth platform is vital. These are the kinds of stories we are collecting from our members.

FO: What is a story that sticks with you and reminds your team of why you do this work?

Land O Lakes: That’s tough. To me, I live in suburban Washington, DC and I’m fortunate that I can work from home, but if I couldn’t do that, I don’t know what I would do. I recognize that in many of these communities that is the case. If you live in a rural community, you’re already physically distant from so many places and the thing that really hits me now, especially during COVID is the mental health aspect of this. The isolation of being physically far apart from family and friends. What we all need is human interaction, and it’s got to be even harder if you live in a rural area. That’s what I hear from people.

FO: What does success look like in 2021?

Land O’ Lakes: The opportunity for potentially a significant infrastructure investment. As we see a new Administration and new Congress, maybe there is a renewed conversation on that topic. It used to be that infrastructure conversations included roads, bridges, waterways, but now it is much more commonly accepted that broadband is part of that conversation. During my career I’ve seen that evolution. You used to have to convince people as to why it was an important issue and not simply nice to have, but rather a need to have. One small silver lining of 2020 is that there has been a bright, shining spotlight on this issue. That’s one small bit of progress that we’ve made this year as hard as it’s been. If we can have meaningful infrastructure legislation that helps to close this digital divide, that would be significant.

Brittany-Rae Gregory: Does your team have relationships with local leaders to understand how policies impact people on a local level?

Land O’ Lakes: There are. I have a colleague on our team who works on state government relations. He is located in our headquarters in Minnesota. We work closely with the states and with the governors. We work with the National Governors’ Association as an example. We also work with NACO, the National Association of Counties, and we work with NASDA, the National Association of State Departments and Agriculture. It is through a lot of those groups that we are able to access some of those local communities.

On broadband specifically, some states have very robust, well-built-out infrastructures in their state. Minnesota for example has a really great broadband program that trickles down to the local level. Other states are maybe not quite as far along in that process. Through our membership, they are the ones that live in these communities, so they know those people