Land O’Lakes wants to make rural America the land o’ broadband

Land O'Lakes (yes, the butter company) is adding brick to bridge the digital divide in the rural U.S.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 22.3% of Americans in rural areas lack coverage from fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, as compared to only 1.5% of Americans in urban areas – a gap that was deeply felt during the COVID pandemic and continues to widen as more business, education and healthcare rely on connectivity.

During the height of COVID, Land O’Lakes expedited its budding plans to help close the broadband access gap in rural America, said Tina May, VP of rural services.

As a cooperative owned by around 1,700 farmers, Land O’Lakes is situated in over 10,000 rural communities in the U.S., touching about half of the harvested acres in the country. 

"Because of our unique footprint in these rural communities, we really asked ourselves, if not us, who? If not now, when?" May said. 

In 2020 Land O’Lakes collaborated with local partners in rural, low-access areas to set up free Wi-Fi in parking lots. One of those partners, Tractor Supply Company, still offers Wi-Fi in some of its locations.

“What was cool about it, it was very grassroots, right, you'd pull up and there would be a homemade sign. Tractor Supply Company did an awesome job jumping on this for their customers right away,” May said.

Soon after the pandemic hit, Land O’Lakes started its American Connection Project (ACP), which advocates for rural broadband investment and includes several projects aimed at expanding access to connectivity. 

While not all Land O'Lakes' COVID-era Wi-Fi spots are up and functioning anymore (“in a post-COVID environment, it wasn't as necessary,” May said), the ACP still has free, public Wi-Fi available at more than 3,000 locations across the U.S.

Land O’Lakes has a map of those locations on its website.

As part of the ACP, Land O’Lakes set up the American Connection Project Policy Coalition, a 175-member coalition of businesses and advocates. According to May, the coalition had a hand in the passing of the $65 billion Bipartisan infrastructure Bill of November 2021.

Led in conjunction with Lead for America (LFA), the ACP in April 2021 also set up American Connection Corps, an ACP fellowship connecting locals to their hometown broadband efforts for a two-year paid program. During the program fellows are set up with local offices and taught skills such as grant writing, advocacy and community organizing.

With more funding being doled out to state broadband efforts – most notably through the recent allocation of $42.5 billion in Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program funding -- the ACP is focused on local implementation, May said.

“Being from these rural places, as we thought about how [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill] is going to get implemented, rural communities don't often have the infrastructure to have grant writers in City Hall,” May said. “They often have a volunteer mayor and a part-time city clerk, so we came up with the American Connection Corps for folks that wanted to move back home post college or community college, stay in their community.”

The American Connection Corps has paired up with a number of state broadband offices, many of which were set up in preparation for BEAD allocations. Land O’Lakes will be graduating its first 50 fellows soon, May said, and has a new cohort ready to start in August – which will include 105 fellows across 34 states.

So far, fellows belonging to the program have won 88 grants totaling over $45 million, with more than 50 permanent broadband infrastructure installations completed. One fellow in Gage County, Nebraska was responsible for organizing a $11 million grant for his community.

The ACP has also partnered with the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) to contribute to the latter’s Rural Innovation Initiative. In a joint effort, the partners are working to launch more of CORI’s American Connection Community projects, which help rural communities with their local broadband efforts.

In January 2022, Land O’Lakes announced its first American Connection Community in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Another has been announced in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and the initiative is “working on a number of other communities,” May said, where CORI will educate, train and assist locals in learning digital skills.

“CORI has had success with this model and about 30 other communities across rural states. Land O’Lakes is helping them go further and faster, bringing other partners and other funding to the table,” May said.

Regarding the recently announced BEAD allocations, May told Fierce: “We’re pumped. We want to get this in the ground yesterday. So, it's exciting to see the momentum continue. It's quite the time in history.”