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American Connection Project: How co-ops are expanding broadband access

A unique perspective on rural broadband expansion from Director of Rural and Shared Services Jen Tonder

Having grown up with family in dairy and spending her career serving in technology and agriculture related businesses, joining the Land O’Lakes IT team over six years ago seemed like a perfect fit for Jen Tonder.
However, when she joined the Land O’Lakes team, she never imagined partnering with member-owners to address rural communities’ access to reliable internet during a pandemic. Currently, many rural areas across the country—areas our farmer-members and customers call home—lack basic internet access, with 60 percent of farmers saying they lack the connectivity needed to run their business.
When faced with a public health crisis that drove most of our lives online, those without access were hit the hardest. In response, Land O’Lakes, Inc. partnered with many of our rurally located retail-owners offering free and open Wi-Fi access to local citizens outside more than 140 of their company locations, manufacturing facilities, and satellite businesses in 19 states across America’s Heartland.
In partnership with our retail-owners and other Land O’Lakes team members, Jen helped lead this effort utilizing her unique background in agriculture and tech. “The team had to come up with solutions that produced quick results,” she explains. “Together, we were able to provide free, public Wi-Fi which made a huge impact right away.” 
While publicly available Wi-Fi was the first step, it was only a short-term solution to begin to address the gap in access. In her role as Director of Rural and Shared Services on the Member Relations team, Jen is a key team member in the creation of new local broadband initiatives through the American Connection Project.
With a focus on member services and communications, Jen sees first-hand the impact of broadband connectivity for members and their surrounding communities. But unlike public Wi-Fi, total broadband expansion has no simple solution. Each community faces their own unique set of infrastructure challenges – but Jen’s expertise in IT and background in ag are uniquely suited for the challenge. She sees the possibilities that arise when we band together.
“We’re interested in ensuring the long-term vitality of communities and agriculture businesses,” Jen says. “Our strategy is: how can we bring together organizations that all have the same goal of expanding broadband to their communities?” 

The power of the cooperative model 

To Jen, the answer lies in the camaraderie of the cooperative model. 
“The co-op model keeps us grounded,” Jen says. “I chose to work for Land O’Lakes because of the values that come with being farmer-owned.”
Those values include strong partnerships with the stakeholders themselves: the farmer-owners. In 2021, Jen led 29 sites of fixed wireless to completion, partnering with Ceres Solutions and Co-Alliance in Indiana, Sunrise Co-op in Ohio, and Frontier and Central Valley Ag Cooperative in Nebraska. Jen also found ways to leverage Land O’Lakes own assets, by equipping the Purina Animal Nutrition facility in Milford, Indiana with high-speed broadband technology to directly benefit nearby residents, and just in February 2022, utilizing the Land O’Lakes Dairy Foods Plant in Tulare, California to establish an Airband site that has led to access for 255,000 residents.
Partnering with farmer-owners means taking advantage of their existing infrastructure to spread broadband access to benefit an entire community. One partner was Jeremy Wilhelm, CEO of Frontier Cooperative, in partnership with Land O’Lakes, Microsoft and internet service provider, Next Link— they repurposed grain towers to improve internet connectivity by expanding broadband internet access for residents in rural Nebraska living near several local Frontier locations.
“We [Frontier Cooperative] launched an app that we could sign grain contracts on their iPhone, and within the first six months, we had over 2000 grain contracts signed with iPhones, which we would have never dreamt that that would have picked up that kind of pace. We’ve got these grain facilities that stand 120 to 150 feet in the air… and we realized that height was useful and beneficial for being able to broaden the scope of high-speed internet and increase the radius,” said Jeremy. “We said why not utilize them? Why not benefit the community? And so now we’re putting up high-speed internet on there.”
These partnerships within the cooperative model help strengthen rural communities and promote a vibrant tomorrow. Jen’s work underscores this important collaboration, “We were founded by farmers and 100 years later, we remain a co-op of farmers that continues to thrive and innovate,” said Jen.

American Connection Project sets sights on Dairy operations

Broadband is just the beginning. Now having worked on the IT and business sides of the rural broadband initiative, Jen has unique insights into what technology can really do for farmers and farm operations. 
“Connectivity is the first step for farms to be able to access real-time data for field and herd management,” Jen explains. “Think about robotics on dairy farms—that requires a high-speed internet connection.” 
The American Connection Project’s impact reached more dairy operations with the Tulare, CA, project. Some Land O’Lakes dairy members in Tulare were experiencing download speeds of 5-7 MBPS. By comparison, the FCC minimum standards for high-speed internet are 25 MBPS download.
High-speed internet will improve their on-farm technology, data management, and sustainability, as well as connect the surrounding area to telehealth, e-learning and remote work resources.
In 2022, more locations are in process, with the aim to bring more communities a reliable broadband connection, truly vital to modern life today. This work brings individuals and families, and businesses and communities, ready to face the challenge ahead together – with leaders like Jen and our member-owners at the forefront marshalling the effort. 
Read more about the recent recognition of this program here.

More about the American Connection Project 

The American Connection Project fosters long-term digital inclusion in support of vibrant and thriving communities. Efforts include raising awareness about the critical nature of connectivity; advocating for meaningful policy reform and broadband investment; and, taking decisive action to provide connectivity options where they’re needed most.
Land O’Lakes is convening organizations and leaders from across the country in this critical time to build strong rural communities positioned for competitiveness and connection now and in the future. 
More about the American Connection project is available at www.americanconnectionproject.com