S6:E5 Connecting & Innovating in Rural America

Apr 20, 2023



Show Notes

Did you know there are still areas across the United States that don’t have reliable access to broadband connectivity? Did you know, until the 2-3 months before the start of Covid-19 Pandemic, the Ceres Solutions location at Perrysville didn’t internet connectivity? This lack of connectivity puts rural areas at disadvantages in today’s global marketplace. Land O’Lakes, through the American Connection Project is working on building more connections throughout rural America.

 “The American Connection Project started back in 2019. It was started by Land O'Lakes as an effort to really look at the need for broadband access across the country,” shared Jen Tonder, he Director of Rural and Shared Services at Land O’Lakes. “At the time our CEO Beth Ford had gone out and talked to a number of our members and one of the big concerns that a lot of them had is the lack of connectivity and the opportunities that brings in the countryside and in rural communities…We grew that to be a coalition of 49 different organizations that launched the American Connection Project in July of 2020.”

The American Connection Project has their efforts expedited with the pandemic. They realized this isn’t a quick problem to solve but quickly mobilized their teams and partnered companies to turn on free public Wi-Fi at their locations, in the parking lots. This allowed individuals access to the internet at 3,600 locations.

In addition to this, the American Connection Project works with local cooperative locations to propagate broadband signals. Perrysville was the first site through the rural broadband initiative that had a Winfield United Answer plot directly adjacent. This led to conversations between Ceres Solutions, Microsoft and Land O’Lakes about the opportunity to test technology in the Answer Plots that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Quickly, these organizations put together an IoT (Internet of Things) Innovation Hub to test new technology.

“It was good learning from that perspective. I think it shows the power of when you bring organizations together that want to partner on something like this, just what you can make happen in a very short period of time.”

The IoT Hub tested several connected technologies in 2022 and will continue to vet new tech for customers in 2023. Tune into our full episode of Field Points or reach out to your local Ceres Solutions professional to learn more about the IoT Hub. Learn more about the American Connection Project from Land O’Lakes here.


Teddy Bekele (00:00): 

Ceres Solutions put their hand up and said, yes, in Perrysville Indiana around that community, we really do lack connectivity. So how can we help? So with the Microsoft team, we're able to go there, put a tower up, and then sort of propagate that signal around that community. Ceres Solutions was able to offer broadband to the residents of that community, which quite frankly, a lot of 'em are customers of serious Solutions and farmers that use that 

Morgan Seger (00:27): 

Every day. We rely on food, fuel and fiber. But how much do you know about these industries we depend on? In this podcast, we dive deep into the production and processes of these everyday essentials. This is Field Points, an original podcast production from Ceres Solutions. Technology is increasing and improving at a rapid rate, and the impact on America's farmers is no exception. One of the biggest roadblocks in using and maximizing the potential of this technology is connectivity. Teddy Bekele, chief technology officer with Land O'Lakes was recently on Land O'Lakes rooted in Tomorrow podcast alongside Ceres Solutions chief marketing officer Drew Garretson to talk about how Ceres Solutions land and Microsoft came together to improve reliable broadband access to their local communities. 

Teddy Bekele (01:18): 

Now that that was deployed, the next question, what can we actually do with this? What are some of the interesting things? And they really jumped on the opportunity to create an innovation hub. They said, well, we really like using technology. We like using technology in farming in very novel ways, and we would love to invite startups and companies that think they have something really neat that's worth trying in row crop farming. And it's been exciting to see what they've done with like soil moisture probes and nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus sensors and pest monitoring cameras. And it's super exciting how they're now able to show that yes, connectivity sort of that backbone, the community has it. They can do tele education, they can do telehealth, but here let's use it in precision farming or digital agronomy in a very different way. That can really take us to the next level 

Morgan Seger (02:09): 

In this Field Points episode. I will be joined by this series co-host Matt Clark. And our guest today is Jen Tonder from Land. They're going to discuss in detail the American Connection Project and how Land O'Lakes is partnering with cooperatives like Ceres Solutions to bring reliable broadband access to local communities. We're also going to talk about the impact it has had for Ceres Solutions and the innovation hub that grew out of this connectivity. Now let's meet our guest, Jen Tonder from Land. 

Jen Tonder (02:41): 

Well, thank you for having me today. I'm excited to be here and be part of this podcast, the Director of Rural and Shared Services at Land. I'm part of the member relations and government relations organization. As part of my role on that team, I am leading the rural Broadband initiative for Land O'Lakes as part of the American Connection Project. In addition to that, I have a team that works with all of the member facing systems at Land O'Lakes and also does work in project management and member communications in other areas such as that for our organization. I've been an employee of land for almost eight years. I did have previous experience working in agriculture before joining land, and I also grew up with grandparents and relatives who were in dairy farmers in Central Minnesota. So that's a little bit about me and my background. Spent most of my career in IT and working on technology projects prior to joining our member relations organization about three years ago. So a lot of experience over the years working with different technologies at different companies in different industries as well. I work out of Land O'Lakes corporate headquarters, which is based out of Arden Hills, Minnesota, and then live here in the Minneapolis St. Paul Twin Cities area. 

Morgan Seger (03:50): 

Jen describes what member relations looks like for Land O'Lakes. 

Jen Tonder (03:53): 

So member relations for Land O'Lakes works with both our agriculture owners, which are made up of Ag retailers such as Ceres Solutions as part of our federated cooperative network. There's about 900 of those types of members as part of the Land O'Lakes Cooperative. There's also growers, producers that are also part of land. And then we have a big portion of it, which most people know Land O'Lakes for is our dairy producers, which that is how we got founded in 1921. So over a hundred years ago it was dairy farmers who founded the Land O'Lakes cooperatives. So we have a mix of both producers as well as agriculture retailers who are other cooperatives who distribute products and provide services to growers and producers across the United States. So we work with both of those groups. We also have a government relations team that works with policy initiatives on behalf of agriculture and the Land O'Lakes members, both at a federal and a state level as part of the work that we do. So we work with governance, we work on as a cooperative, our board of directors and our elected leaders are all made up of our members of land. So we also work on behalf of that to also work on that process as well. 

Morgan Seger (05:01): 

As you heard in the intro, land O'Lakes is working alongside Microsoft and Ceres Solutions to bring connectivity to local communities. This action is part of the American Connection Project. 

Jen Tonder (05:13): 

Yes. So American Connection Project started back in 2019. It was started in by Land O'Lakes as an effort to really look at the need for broadband access across the country. At the time our CEO Beth Ford had gone out when she first became CEO and talked to a number of our members and one of the big concerns that a lot of 'em had is the lack of connectivity and opportunities that brings in the countryside and in rural communities. And so out of that was born the American Connection Project initially started with land and then as we got into the pandemic we launched, we grew that to be a coalition of 49 different organizations that launched the American Connection Project in July, July of 2020 in an effort to raise of the issue of why there's the lack of broadband across the United States, advocacy and a lot of work done on the advocacy front and then action. 


And that's where the Rural Broadband initiative has come in, is really bringing action to how do we solve the digital divide and the lack of broadband access across the United States. The coalition grew from 49 organizations in July of 2020 to now being over 170 organizations that span very different industries, very different parts of the United States, but all recognize the need and why connectivity is so important across the United States. One of the things that the policy organization really pushed for is in the infrastructure bill that was passed in November of 2021, there was 65 billion worth of funding provided for the expansion specifically of the broadband across the United States. And that those funds are now work working on being allocated out to the states who will then be able to address the largest areas of need as it pertains to broadband in their states at a county or city level depending upon how they're structured to roll out their funding across their state. 


One other thing I will mention about the American Connection Project in March of 2020 when the pandemic hit, we recognized Land O'Lakes were recognized that we were not going to solve the issue of broadband connectivity overnight. And we quickly mobilized and said, well, what could we do to address people going, working from home or kids coming home and needing to do e-learning? And so we came up with the idea of could we turn on public wifi in the parking lot of our facilities and allow people to come up, stay socially distanced park in the parking lot where we had the right connectivity and quickly mobilized to have 31 of our Land O'Lakes facilities across the United States provide broadband, which quickly grew to a number of our, A retailers added about 110 sites to that. And then we had other organizations like American Farm Bureau and Tractor Supply who also turned on public wifi either at their stores or their offices, and we continued to provide that service and now there's over 3,600 pre-public wifi sites that people can look up on the website and go to and access internet if they high-speed internet if they do not have it. 


So that was our first foray in really trying to do that. And then now this work with bringing broadband to communities is the real next piece of the activities that we're doing along with things such as this IOT innovation hub we're going to talk about with Ceres 

Morgan Seger (08:21): 

Next. Jen walks us through how Microsoft and Land O'Lakes tactically work together to make this happen in the local communities and how customers can have access to this source of broadband. 

Jen Tonder (08:33): 

Sure. So on the Land O'Lakes Initiative, we've been partnering with one of our big partners has been Microsoft and our partnership there. Microsoft has the airband initiative, which is around connecting the unconnected. And so they partner Microsoft partners with internet service providers across the country and actually internationally in identifying opportunities to expand broadband. What we've done is worked through that initiative to identify areas where these internet service providers are looking to expand service or where there's needs. And the big piece of this and is come into play is they, a lot of these are in rural communities are doing what is called a fixed wireless solution where they're putting an antenna on top of a tall structure, think of grain elevator, seed treating facility, anything that has a tall height feed plant. And what it allows 'em to do then is broadcast high-speed internet service out to the surrounding communities generally in about a four to six mile radius. 


And the reason why that works really well in some of these communities is the infrastructure it's able to get that out to the communities much faster because they're broadcasting it versus lane fiber can take some time and this is really meeting a need, especially in areas where people are spread out and homes are not as close together or farms are, things like that. And it has gone really well. And so we've been working with it as they identified and partnership of like they will say, Hey, we we're looking to expand in this area. We'll reach out to an organization like SIR and say, do you have a facility in this location? Or we'll look at that and say, would you be interested in partnering? And then they work with that to provide the connectivity for that community. It's worked really well and we continue to look for opportunities and in additional states that we've been working in where we have member owners, we really prioritize those areas where Land O'Lakes has their members, whether it be an ag retailer or whether it be our own dairy members and really providing those rural communities that we serve to help expand internet from that perspective. 


So our success to date, we've had 59 8 communities across the United States and seven states that now have a permanent broadband solution and access to connectivity available to them. So in these areas, I'll give the example of Perrysville, Indiana, which is the Ceres solution that went live. There's the internet service provider has done marketing. I know there was promotion that SIR did to their members in that area and they sign up through the internet service provider because they're the ones who provide the service to a resident or a business that has need for that service. It's like any other service you'd sign up for. You go through the provider and they have different plans available to you depending upon what download speeds you want or what your needs are based on what they can provide in that 

Matt Clark (11:11): 

Area. Perrysville being one of those locations, that was personally, that was important to us as well just because Crop 63 or Perrysville is considered one of our technology hubs, kind of the main one. That's where my office is and that's where we have the iot hub. And for being a technology center, we had no access to internet either. So we went two or three months there actually right before the pandemic where we didn't have internet at all. So it's kind of tough to be a seed hub and a technology center with no internet. So we got internet to come in and through the, at least we have a seed leg. That's how we were able to get internet in. So it's a kind of repeater type situation. And then we we're able to broadcast there. So it's been great for us. We, we've really not had issues since all that happened. 

Jen Tonder (11:55): 

And that's a great point, Matt, a lot of the facilities that were providing it to the surrounding community, it's also upgrading the internet connectivity for a retailer site because many of those sites didn't have high speed internet. So win-win because it's helping the business operations as well as helping the people who live in that surrounding 

Matt Clark (12:12): 

Community. Yeah, we're kind of in a unique situation. We're just a mile off of I 74 and there's fiber there at the interstate. We know for sure because we've tried several times to get somebody to bring it down to us and we've never been successful at that. So 

Morgan Seger (12:28): 

Next, Matt and Jen walk us through the I O T Internet of Things Innovation Hub at Ceres Solutions. 

Matt Clark (12:35): 

From a Ceres standpoint, between Drew and myself, we were, we're just constantly getting requests for selling the next technology. We have a new sensor or a new technology out on the market and somebody wants us to sell it to our growers and we're constantly looking for ways to vet that technology. So the way we did it before, we would try and find a customer that we had a good relationship with and upfront say, this is kind of a trial situation. We're both going to learn together at some point. That just gets hard to do, especially with a lot of technology that honestly fails out the gate. So we really needed a place to test technology to learn about it before we take it to our customers and try to do anything with it. So Prop 63 or Perrysville here also has a large answer plot and it's been there for years. So we really kind of tried to apply the same idea to technology. So to really have a test plot for technology where we can, we've got a stable environment we're very familiar with, so we can put that technology out there and learn about it through a growing season. 

Jen Tonder (13:41): 

And this was Perrysville was the first site through the rural broadband initiative that had a Winfield United Answer plot directly adjacent to it. So it was somewhat of an organic conversation between Ceres and Drew and Matt and Microsoft and watch communications and Land O'Lakes to say, Hey, could there be an opportunity here to show why connectivity is so important in rural communities and what could it enable from an ag technology perspective? And so out of that we said, well, let's see what we could do as a proof of concept is what we did last year in 2022. And looked at what are some of the use cases, what are some of the things we'd want to look at? So we said, well, agronomics and insights on the field and things like sustainability and stewardship. The other thing is, which we're all facing is the whole labor challenge. 


Are there things that we could look at that would help that are more in that autonomous or robotic space that could help with the labor challenges? And from there really continued the discussion to say, okay, this is new. What would an IOT innovation hub look like? What would be the success criteria? And the big thing for us as we looked at as we did this and getting into more details here is how accurate are some of these probes? There's a lot of technologies out there that do soil probes to measure n PK or moisture and all of that. And really looking at how we are able to do that and how accurate are they? Does the technology help make Ceres and the grower and WINFIELD United more profitable? And then how does it work with the connectivity? With the connectivity that we have at Perrysville and being able to put basically a wifi type device out next to the field that then the devices could connect to and provide the results back through the cloud into dashboards and other things. So those were all things that we considered as we were talking about this. And then the next question was really what technology do we want to use and what's out there? And that really came down to a discussion between Ceres and Microsoft and Land O'Lakes to say, well, what do we know is out there and what might we want to experiment with and see based on these use cases and the success criteria that we defined that we might want to evaluate them against for the 2022 crappier. 

Morgan Seger (15:50): 

I love that they focused on what the problems for the customers are first and then worked backwards to figure out which of these technology options might be a solution to solve that problem. Next, Matt walks us through how they determine if a product or technology that they tested was a success or a failure in the plot. 

Matt Clark (16:09): 

And this is the big question we always try to ask. We put some stuff out in the plot last fall that honestly didn't do well, but that's okay. That's what I try to tell our people is that that's fine. That's the point of this project to an extent is to learn about this and see does it actually solve the problem that they're claiming that it solves or is there a problem there to begin with? 

Jen Tonder (16:31): 

And that was a big learning mean that working with these technologies we had soil moisture and even just working through the technology challenges of just getting things connected because it, it's new and being outside and you've got the weather elements and sun and pests and everything else that that's there. That was a good learning and we took it all as really good learning because we had never done anything like this before and evaluating it, we also were able then to test, take soil samples to test and say, and to have 'EM lab tested against the probes and say, how accurate are they and how do they do? So it was good learning from that perspective. And I think just also showing the power of when you bring organizations together that want to partner on something like this, just what you can make happen in a very short period of time because there wasn't a lot of lead time. And I think we started the conversation in the fall of 2021 and by the time the crop year crops were on the ground, we were already putting technology on the field and trying to look at what we were doing. So it's pretty short that this all came about as a pilot last year proper of concept. Well we, 

Matt Clark (17:32): 

We looked at several different things. One of it obviously being accurate. If it's a sensor that's measuring something, then how accurately does it measure? So we had some sensors last year that were doing nutrient monitoring, whether that's a permanent sensor or a temporary one. And so we were taking soil samples and comparing the results. How accurate is it to a lab result? Lab results may not be the end all be all, but that's what we're accustomed to and that's what we've calibrated all of the weight our practices today too. So that's what we were kind of holding as a standard is that lab result. So that was accuracy was one, connectivity was another big piece, kind of like Jen mentioned. So how does it connect? Is it a cellular connection or is it going to go through the WAN network where we can save some money on subscriptions, things like that. 


And how well does it stay connected because we learned sometimes that's not always the given as well. And then really the third part of that was scalability. How easy are these sensors to install? How much effort is it going to take to maintain 'em? Workforce is a big thing for us trying to help our workforce empower our workforce to do things better and more efficient. So if it's going to take just as much time to support the tool as it would be to just go out and do what we had traditionally done, then it's not really solving the problem either. 

Morgan Seger (18:50): 

Now that we have this iot plot established, I asked Jen and Matt to share some details as to what growers and employees might see in the 2023 growing season. 

Jen Tonder (19:01): 

For this year, we are looking at additional technologies or newer technologies we could pilot at the answer plot. One of 'em that we used last year, which was a pest monitoring tool from psel. We are looking to expand that I think to two additional geographies, if I remember correctly, Matt, and that one worked really well from that perspective. I think we gave the vendors some feedback too because some of the terminology was in very scientific terms for identifying bugs and most of us do not know the scientific names for all the different bugs, but it was gave us some additional data points and utilizing it on a field. We're also shifting now into really looking at the operational side and what types of technologies might be out there for sensors for things like tank monitoring and help with inventory and operational efficiencies or planning from a labor perspective and things like that. So we've been partnering with Matt and the other rest of the team at Ceres to really talk through where are those additional opportunities. We're also looking internally within Land O'Lakes with some of the things we may be doing that might be able to fall in that space to help sir out with their operational efficiencies and inventory management. All enabled by technology and obviously at the foundation of that is connectivity at each of their sites in order to enable this technology from an operational efficiency perspective. 

Matt Clark (20:18): 

Well, for one, I think most people are familiar with where Crop 63 is. It's the same place we used to hold the knowledge event. So the technology's always out there. There's access to it, you can go see what we're doing out there. We also part of last year, and we plan on doing it again this year is around August, we'll have a public event where people can come and learn about the technology that we have been evaluating this year, kind of see some of the results we have at that point. And that's open to customers. We also like to invite and things like that to come and learn about what we're doing out here with this project. 

Morgan Seger (20:52): 

Next Jen shares what the outlook is for the American Connection Project moving forward. 

Jen Tonder (20:57): 

So with the federal funding approved, as I mentioned, it's through the infrastructure bill. The focus of the coalition, the American Connection Project Coalition is now really shifting to implementation and making sure those funds reach the greatest needs where connectivity is lacking today. So a few things that includes is developing more accurate broadband maps. There's been a lot of coverage on the inaccuracy where maps will say that people have coverage, they don't. So it's been a big push to make sure that that continues to be maintained so that the areas with the greatest need are getting addressed as the funding is made available through the federal government as well as states are also providing a lot of funding to help expand broadband in local communities. And then a big piece of this too is ensuring affordability as well, because internet can be expensive and there's been programs available to ensure that it continues to be affordable and competitive. 


And then also digital conclusion to ensure that people are getting the necessary training or have resources available to them to learn about what they can do once they do a connectivity or maybe some of the newer things that are available to them as solutions for their personal business, for home, for learning and all of that. And then also continuing to just the communication engagement. We continue to work with that. We will continue to work on expanding rural broadband through partnership with Microsoft and their ISPs to rural communities. We have a number of things that are continue to be in process that we're working on as well. And then I think a couple of the things that people may not know as much about that Land O'Lakes has been involved in through the American Connection Project is two years ago we launched the American Connection Core in partnership with an organization called Lead for America. 


And what that does is provide fellows in local communities with boots on the ground efforts to boost local internet connectivity. So these are fellows working in a community, not just to get the connectivity, but also to really look at what does that enable in these communities from a economic development perspective, potentially job opportunities as there's a number of jobs and especially through the pandemic, more jobs went remote. What kind of opportunities does that open up once you do have internet connectivity? So that started two years ago. We now have 75 fellows that are located across the country in different communities working on that. And then the other program we launched is American Connection Communities, which was in partnership with the Center of Rural Innovation or also known as Quarry. And that's also providing, again, looking at economic development through connectivity and technology, looking at entrepreneurship. 


And the first community that we launched last year was Aberdeen, South Dakota. And we are planning on launching additional communities this year. Again, it's enabled that development, that economic development and really, really showing why important, the importance of connectivity and also what it does from an economic perspective for those communities and providing new opportunities or giving people new opportunities and jobs as technology continues to grow as well. So we've, like I said, mentioned continuing to work on our rural broadband initiative. In addition, with these initiatives that are happening today in the broader scale of the American Connection Project, I will also mention we do have a website, so if people are ever interested in going out and finding out more information about the work we've been doing, that website is www.americanconnectionproject.com. I encourage people if they're interested to go out and take a look, that also has the links to the free public wifi locations as well. And if people are looking for more information, 

Morgan Seger (24:22): 

Jen shares how this project has worked in rural communities and the impact it has had for growers across the United States. 

Jen Tonder (24:30): 

We've had some things with through our programs. I think right now what we're seeing is just the opportunity that people are able to do more on farm. People have gotten connected. I've talked to some of our dairy members in different area who have gotten connected to high speed internet and just things that they're able to do on their operations with data and information about herd management and obviously dairy operations. A few of 'em, it's opened up opportunities for maybe a spouse to do a part-time job working remote because they have that connectivity. Their kids have done things with e-learning and bringing, doing virtual things to promote agriculture and farming. So we've heard some of those, but we continue to see that with just the impact of the opportunities that opens up for things like telemedicine and improved health and all of those sorts of things, or remote learning as this, that continues at times to be a need, especially with weather in certain parts of the country too. 


We have that come into play. So those are some of the things that we continue to measure the impact and how many people are signing up and really looking at as we go forward. But it is making a difference. It is making a difference from an economic impact in these communities. I think as this continues to evolve and roll out, we'll see more and more of the positive impact that this is having with the connectivity that is being done at these communities as well as our initiatives with partners like Lead for America and also Corey. 

Matt Clark (25:46): 

Well, thanks for doing this, Jen, so no 

Morgan Seger (25:48): 

Problem. As we wrap up, Matt shares how you can get involved in this year's iot Hub. 

Matt Clark (25:54): 

Watch out for the summer and we'll be making some announcements later on when we will have a public event and just watch out for that. And if you're interested in the technology, reach out to any of your Ceres representatives and they can put you in contact with us and you can come tour it at any point really and see the different technology we've got out there. 

Morgan Seger (26:12): 

I'd like to thank our partner for this series, the Rooted in Tomorrow podcast from Land O'Lakes. This podcast hosted by Kim Olson shares the innovators, changemakers, and modern entrepreneurs who change the land. You can find it anywhere you listen to your podcast. And if you're looking for a couple of episodes to get started on, I'd recommend episode 10, the Field of Innovation, turning Ag Tech Tools on in an Indiana crop Field. And on the November 3rd episode in 2022, sir Solutions, CEO, Jeff Troike was featured on a panel telling the story of Agriculture, a co-op member discussion with Land O'Lakes, CEO Beth Ford. Again, that's the rooted in Tomorrow podcast from land. And we'll be sure to link out to it in our show notes. The show notes for this episode will be available at Ceres dot e r e s dot c o o p. If you enjoyed this deeper dive, be sure to subscribe and leave us a review. Your review and feedback will help other listeners like you find our podcast, and we are so thankful for that. 


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