Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford and the changing landscape of America's farms

Lesley Stahl speaks with Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford about the challenges facing farmers today, the opportunities technology offers and what it's like to be the only openly gay, female CEO of a Fortune 500 company

The modern American farmer

American farmers are suffering, facing a pileup of misfortunes: President Trump's tariffs, record-setting floods during spring planting, and persistently low prices for their products. The Trump administration has promised nearly $20 billion in financial aid, but so far just a third of that has reached farmers, more than half of whom lost money last year.

A woman named Beth Ford has emerged as the farmer's advocate. Last year, she became the CEO of Land O'Lakes. You're thinking that's the butter company, and it is. But it's also a multi-billion dollar agricultural conglomerate that in one way or another affects half of all the farmland in America. Beth Ford spends a lot of her time lobbying in Washington, and this spring she wrote an op-ed piece titled "Farmers Are In Crisis, and America Isn't Paying Attention."

Beth Ford: You've got trade issues and tariff issues. You've got a changing consumer and what they want. I mean, there are so many variables right now pressuring farmers. And this year, right now, the central issue for farmers is weather.

Lesley Stahl: It's a bad time.

Beth Ford: It's a challenging time.

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Beth Ford, CEO of Land O'Lakes

Beth Ford's company, Land O'Lakes, is in the Fortune 500, with $15 billion in annual revenue. Its butter and cheese dominate the dairy case and its Purina division feeds 100 million farm and zoo animals every day. But it's still an old-fashioned farmers' cooperative, founded almost 100 years ago. So rather than answering to Wall Street analysts, she reports to 4,000 farmers.

Beth Ford: Most people don't realize that, that we're farmer-owned. That we really, literally, go back to the farm and then all the way to the retail shelf.

Lesley Stahl: Right. So you work for the farmers.

Beth Ford: I do.

Lesley Stahl: You own them.

Dave Estrem: Yes. 

Dave Estrem is one of the farmers Beth Ford works for.

Lesley Stahl: You're her boss.

Dave Estrem: Well, I'm proud of it. I'm her boss yeah. Well, I really don't want to say it that way, but--(laugh)

Lesley Stahl: But it's the truth.

Dave Estrem: It is.

Estrem grows corn and soybeans on the 4,000 acre Minnesota farm that's been in his family for 75 years. Right now, he's struggling to sell what's in his silos.

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Dave Estrem's farm

Dave Estrem: We have two of them dedicated to soybeans this year. This one's full of soybeans. And then the other one at the far side of this is full of soybeans.

Lesley Stahl: Soybeans have been going to China.

Dave Estrem: They used to.

Lesley Stahl: They used to.

In the tariff tit-for-tat, China has dramatically reduced purchases of U.S. soybeans and threatened to cut off all farm imports.

Lesley Stahl: How bad is the hit from all these tariffs that are coming your way?

Dave Estrem: We're feeling it. It-- it's-- it's very difficult.

Lesley Stahl: Is it dramatic?

Dave Estrem: It is.

Beth Ford: Yeah, I think the export markets have been central to profitability for agriculture.

The loss of those markets has hit prices hard. Soybeans are now selling for around $9 a bushel. 

Beth Ford: Normally you would want $10 or $11 per bushel. So--

Lesley Stahl: That's a big hit.

Beth Ford: That's a very low price. That means many farmers are losing money.

Lesley Stahl: Are people in this area, this is supposedly Trump's base. Is it beginning to hurt him at all?

Beth Ford: More frustration is present because a number of people are going to lose their businesses. They're gonna lose farms that they've had in their families for generations.

Lesley Stahl: So you think there may be a little softening?

Dave Estrem: A little bit, yeah.

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Beth Ford and Dave Estrem speak with correspondent Lesley Stahl

Adding to the economic woes, Dave Estrem - and farmers all across the midwest - suffered through the wettest, worst spring planting season on record.

Dairy farmers are suffering too; less from bad weather than from trade tensions with Mexico and Canada and historically low prices. Beth Ford took us to a Land O'Lakes dairy farm in Pennsylvania run by sisters Candice White and Amanda Condo.

Amanda Condo: A lotta times our cost of production is higher than what we're getting paid for our product. So it's-- it's been a few years of losing money.

Lesley Stahl:  Actually losing money?

Amanda Condo:  Yes.

Beth Ford: I think there used to be 92,000 dairy producers in the country and now the last-- the number I saw was in the 50,000 level, so 40% reduction.

Land O'Lakes farmers are able to hang on because they share in the co-op's overall profits. That butter you buy at the grocery store provides some of those profits, of course, but the co-op's most profitable division specializes in something called "AgTech," and Beth ford says that is going to be the key to farmers long-term survival. 

Beth Ford: We use satellite technology. We use predictive models. We use all of the things that probably other businesses use but that people are unfamiliar with in terms of utilization in agriculture.

Lesley Stahl: So up on your screen, is this Dave's farm?

Teddy Bekele: So this is Dave's farm. This is where we were yesterday.

Teddy Bekele is Land O'Lakes' chief technology officer.

Teddy Bekele: That's a picture from a satellite.

Lesley Stahl: The satellite can tell how well the field is doing.

Teddy Bekele: That's exactly right.

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Teddy Bekele, Land O'Lakes' chief technology officer, shows correspondent Lesley Stahl some of the technology farmers are using today

The satellite images are matched with a computer algorithm that feeds off of ten years worth of data from Dave Estrem's fields to create color-coded 'prescriptions' for each section of each plot.

Teddy Bekele: In the red zones we're gonna do 28,000 seeds per acre. In the yellow zones we'll do 32,000 seeds per acre. In the green zones we'll do 38,000 seeds per acre. You take this prescription and you put it into the planter and it plants it according to this prescription.

Dave Estrem: On the acres that we plant. It's all on the-- the computer or the tractor that runs the planter.

Lesley Stahl: Wait, the-- wait, the computer runs the planter?

Dave Estrem: Absolutely. The computer runs the corn planter or bean planter, and it tells it how many seeds to drop per acre.

Dave Estrem will tell you that getting that right matters, because the cost of seed can make the difference between profit or loss. As those seeds sprout and grow, the satellites continue to monitor Dave's fields and thousands of others.

Teddy Bekele: So these images are taken every five to seven days. So there's an image that comes in, and you can see the different colors here. And that gives us an idea of, "Okay, this field is trending down. So let's go out there and-- and take-- a sample. That's what we would do. So what we could see from this sample is that the nitrogen and potassium are okay. Nitrogen's pretty good. But the boron is-- is struggling a little bit. So... 

Lesley Stahl: My, my, my. It is really micro, micro, micro—farming. Micromanaging…

Teddy Bekele: Micromanaging it-- Absolutely. Absolutely.

That kind of detail allows farmers like Dave Estrem to use only as much fertilizer and pesticide as is absolutely necessary. Land O'Lakes says that saves farmers money and is better for the environment. The company also plants hundreds of test fields using every conceivable combination of seed, fertilizer, weed and pest control, to show farmers what'll work best on their fields.

Lesley Stahl: Is this an agricultural co-op or a tech company? (LAUGHTER) I'm serious.

Beth Ford: It's exciting. It really is, and I think most people don't understand that agriculture is so tech-forward, and it is.  

And Land O'Lakes dairy farmers are just as tech-savvy.

Teddy Bekele: So number one we use this thing called-- computer vision or image recognition.

He's talking about, I kid you not, facial recognition for cows.

Teddy Bekele: So the machine now is using the technology and we're starting to see, "Okay, this cow is at ideal," and as you can see I just recognized the cow. It says, "Is it ideal, is it over, or is it thin?" So those are the types of things we can--

Lesley Stahl: And this machine would look at each and every cow in the herd?

Teddy Bekele: That's right.

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Beth Ford with Amanda Condo and Candice White

Candice White: We work very closely with a nutritionist…

Candice White and Amanda Condo don't yet have that tool on their farm. But they can run the whole place from their smartphones.

Candice White: We have this dairy dashboard.

Lesley Stahl: Ok.

Candice White: You know, today, we're milking 1,051 cows. 

And how do they keep track of them?

Candice White: If you see on their front leg, they have that little tag?

Lesley Stahl: Oh, yeah!

Candice White: That is their Fitbit.

Lesley Stahl: Oh my goodness, look at that.

Lesley Stahl: You are monitoring each cow separately.

MULTIPLE VOICES: Yes. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Lesley Stahl: And you can go out and say, "3079, right over here isn't eating enough. Let's--

Candice White: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Lesley Stahl: --go over there and find out what's wrong."

MULTIPLE VOICES: Yeah. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Candice White: That will track her milk production also in the milking parlor.

Lesley Stahl: Everything.

Candice White: Yes.

Beth Ford: I think people have this old-school view of farming as slower than, less than, smaller than.

Lesley Stahl: Hayseed.

Beth Ford: Yeah. And they're not. They're very sophisticated businesspeople, they are very tech savvy. They have to be to withstand this kind of market pressure. 

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As Beth Ford visits her co-op's farms, she's finding that more and more of them are being run by women.

Lesley Stahl: Don't you think it's an assumption when people meet you and you say, "I'm running a farm--" don't people think, "Well, their husbands are really doing it?"

Amanda Condo: Yeah because, I mean, that's the typical stereotype, right? (LAUGH) It's-- it's the man; the man is the farmer.

Lesley Stahl: Can I be honest? I actually thought that.

Amanda Condo: Yeah.

Just after Ford became CEO, Land O'Lakes released a music video featuring Amanda and Candice to highlight the fact that one-third of American farmers these days are women.

At 55, Ford is in a very small club of women running Fortune 500 companies.

Beth Ford: Innovation is our advantage at Land O'Lakes.

But she stands alone as the only female CEO of a big company who's openly gay.

Lesley Stahl: Tell us about how it was discussed that you were gonna be the first gay female CEO.

Beth Ford: It wasn't. The announcement was simply that I was going to be named as CEO, gave my background, and then it simply just said in the last line of the announcement that I live in Minneapolis with my wife Jill and our three teenage children.

That was it. Matter-of-fact. A single line.

Lesley Stahl: But tell me about the reaction because it was explosive, in a way.

Beth Ford: It was a bit overwhelming and emotional for me. And you know where most of that emotion comes from? It comes from parents. It comes from parents. You know, "Thank you for being--"

Lesley Stahl: Of gay children.

Beth Ford: Yeah. Their children-- "Thank you. My daughter has come out to me and she's 13. And I can share this with her. And thank you 'cause now we can have a conversation about her life."

Lesley Stahl: Aren't you lucky that you live now?

Beth Ford: I am.

Lesley Stahl: I'm sure you think of that all the time--

Beth Ford:  Let's be very honest. I mean, that is absolutely true.

But when she began her business career more than 30 years ago, she felt she had to keep it hidden. Mobil Oil hired her right out of college.

Lesley Stahl: Any problems at work?

Beth Ford: No, because I wasn't--

Lesley Stahl: You kept it secret.

Beth Ford: Well, I did through my-- early-thirties. And I was working in line operations, working in tanker and barge docks, trucking facilities, manufacturing facilities. It wasn't-- really until my thirties that-- you know, where I met Jill, who's my wife, my spouse, that I thought, you know, "Okay, we're just moving on."

Ford's wife Jill Shurtz is a West Point grad and lawyer. 

Lesley Stahl: When did you get married?

Beth Ford: When it was allowed. But you know, we've been together for 26, now this is our 27th year.

Lesley Stahl: Oh my.

Beth Ford: I have a daughter who's 17 and then twin boys.

Lesley Stahl:  Who are what--

Beth Ford: Who are 14. And so yes, we're in the middle of making the sausage. We're doing our best, like every other (LAUGH) family. That's why I love it when I'm with our members and they're talking about their family and then they're talking about their grandbabies or about their children, it's a joy.

Ford didn't grow up on a farm, but she did grow up in farm country - Sioux City, Iowa – the fifth in a family of eight children. Her first job was detasseling corn at age 12, and she's been working ever since. 

Beth Ford: I was-- a janitor, I cleaned toilets. I--

Lesley Stahl: You cleaned toilets?

Beth Ford: Yes. So I had a variety of jobs. And again, this is no different than our members. You know, three in the morning, the pump in the manure pit's broken. They're out there in the freezing snow. This is why I admire our members and why I feel connected to them because they're willing to do the hard work. And I, I think that's terrific.

Produced by Rome Hartman. Associate producer, Sara Kuzmarov

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.