Microsoft and Land O'Lakes are teaming up to make broadband more accessible. The collaboration isn't as strange as it seems.

  • Microsoft and Land O'Lakes announced a new partnership to bring broadband internet access to rural communities, according to CNN. Their collaoboration isn't as bizarre as it seems.
  • Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes, is known for tackling difficult issues that affect the dairy industry, and the digital divide has been on her radar for over a year.
  • "Roughly one in three rural Americans, and one in four farmers, are without broadband access," Ford said in an op-ed in Dairy Business in June 2019.
  • The company also made headlines for removing the drawing of a Native American woman from its label earlier this year, under Ford's leadership.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Microsoft and Land O'Lakes announced a new partnership to bring broadband internet access to rural communities, according to CNN who spoke with Microsoft's CEO for its "Just Move" segment on Wednesday. A tech giant partnering with a butter brand might sound like a bizarre collaboration, even for 2020, but it's actually not as surprising as it sounds.

In fact it's just the latest joint effort since the two companies started working together formally in 2013. In 2014, Land O'Lakes adopted Microsoft's cloud technology, Azure, for its line of agricultural technology products.

Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes, is known for tackling difficult issues that affect the dairy industry and its farmers, and the digital divide has been on her radar for over a year. In June 2019, Ford published an op-ed in Dairy Business citing the many difficulties facing farmers and rural communities that stem from lack of broadband access. 

"Roughly one in three rural Americans, and one in four farmers, are without broadband access, cutting them off from services like telemedicine and educational tools," she said. "Many parents have to drive to the local McDonald's so their kids can get Internet access to finish homework."

High-speed internet access is essential on farms, too. Land O'Lakes Chief Technology Officer, Teddy Bekele, explained in an email to Business Insider how "farms are more tech-savvy than ever." Broadband internet access allows farmers to deploy more cutting-edge technology on their farms, allowing for "efficiency through advancements in precision agriculture, conservation practices, and digital dairy operations."

"Data-driven tools and software are critical to running a modern farm operation, but they're not possible without adequate internet access," Bekele adds.

Currently, the digital divide has been widened by the coronavirus pandemic, as many Americans must now work and attend school remotely, and are unable to access spaces like libraries or schools that they might have previously relied on for internet access. Microsoft will be working with Land O'Lakes to bring broadband access and other resources including digital skills courses to 19 states where Land O'Lakes has farms, helping not just dairy farmers but rural communities at large.

"The data-based, precision agriculture tools that we are building with Microsoft will provide the edge they need, but unreliable or nonexistent high-speed internet in rural areas keeps these tools out of reach for many," Ford explains in Microsoft's official press release announcing the latest in the partnership. "Through this alliance, we will work to address this need and help farmers remain profitable and sustainable."

Beyond the issue of broadband access, Ford has made a career out of making progressive moves. In February of this year, Ford announced that the dairy cooperative would remove the drawing of a Native American woman that had been a prominent part of its label since 1928. By the end of 2020, the label will not appear on any Land O'Lakes products. 

Ford also sat down with Time in June to discuss the murder of George Floyd, which took place just a short drive from the Land O'Lakes headquarters, and how major corporations based in the Twin Cities can address systemic racism. Land O'Lakes even has a podcast, Something Greater, that tackles tough issues affecting farmers in the U.S., like mental health and suicide, or the difficulties facing essential workers in the food supply industry who are working during the coronavirus pandemic. As the first openly-gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, her attitude of openness and inclusivity is baked into how she's navigated the corporate world herself.

Though it's less of a surprise that Microsoft is creating initiatives surrounding the digital divide, the tech company's CEO Satya Nadella is also an outspoken voice on increasing broadband access. Nadella wrote an opinion piece in the Financial Times in 2016 warning against a global digital divide, and earlier this year in an interview with Fast Company he underscored the importance of making broadband equally accessible in the U.S.

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