Think back to the year 1981. Ronald Reagan became president. The first IBM personal computer was invented. And the Land O’Lakes, Inc. membership hailed from about six states in the U.S. (today it’s coast to coast).
Despite being a landlocked, then-Midwest-based cooperative, Ralph Hofstad (then-CEO) and the board of directors of Land O’Lakes, Inc. decided to do something bold: Position Land O’Lakes as a leader in international agricultural development. It was a visionary idea, and the board loved it.
With the support of members, Ralph then hired Vern Freeh from the University of Minnesota to head up the venture and, with enthusiastic member support, Land O’Lakes, Inc. launched its unique approach to international development.
International development was slightly different than international business. International Development meant finding holistic agricultural solutions to empower emerging global economies, build global prosperity and foster future trade opportunities. It was a handshake, never a handout.
Land O’Lakes, Inc. is one of the largest U.S. farmer-owned agribusinesses to undertake an international development venture.
“Our dream was to share our agricultural experience with developing countries... We had farmers, agricultural researchers, cooperative managers and regional staff at Land O’Lakes with an abundance of knowledge and experience. Why not share this?” Ralph Hofstad.
The early years
As Vern started to figure out how the international development industry worked, International Development served as a sub-contractor on some global projects. Then, in 1983, they were awarded our first “prime” – where we were the main implementor on a U.S. government-funded project. That first project? Using surplus dairy products from the U.S. to fund a foundation that would give farmers beneficial loans in Jamaica. This was a five-year project, and 30 years later the foundation, JADF, still operates today in Jamaica.
In addition, International Development invited farmers from across the world to visit Land O’Lakes, Inc. member farms in the U.S. for trainings and internships. Many projects in the late 1980’s empowered farmers to produce, market and distribute their crops and dairy products by working cooperatively – something we knew a lot about. In the 1990’s, the focus shifted from Latin America to Eastern Europe and Africa, because that’s where there was the greatest need for agricultural development work.
Land O’Lakes International Development became an independent, affiliated nonprofit in 2016. This helps broaden their impact while still maintaining ties to Land O’Lakes, Inc.
Unique collaboration of farmers continued to thrive
International Development’s approaches have evolved over time. Today, it’s about inclusive, innovative approaches designed for the local context and a lasting impact. And, in some ways, Land O’Lakes, Inc. plays a big role in International Development’s ability to continue making an impact.
From the Farm Bill to the McGovern Dole Food for Education Program, Land O’Lakes, Inc. leaders and farmer-members have been instrumental in advocating how foreign aid can build a better world. This ongoing advocacy work has boosted the reputation of both Land O’Lakes, Inc. and Land O’Lakes International Development, while protecting critical funding for important projects in the process.
In addition, since 1981, International Development has fielded over 160 Land O’Lakes, Inc. employees and cooperative members internationally as technical experts. And International Development has implemented nearly 300 projects in over 80 countries.
Former board member Albert Wanous spent almost 12 years in Poland, helping rebuild the dairy industry. Current Board Chairman Pete Kappelman has been to Rwanda and many other African countries with International Development. The list can go on, but it’s easy to see that International Development’s history is a shared history with Land O’Lakes, Inc. member-owners.
And the impact of the work has lasted long beyond the assignments and projects. For example, the USAID-funded Macedonia Agricultural Marketing Activity (MAMA) project started in 2003, and at that time, Macedonia was importing about 60 percent of its processed milk. MAMA aimed to grow the dairy (and meat) industry by fostering a competitive market that centered around a Macedonia Seal of Quality (SOQ) program. Today, almost 90 percent of cheese and meat is marketed through the SOQ program. Thanks to the quality bar being raised to meet international standards, Macedonia’s demand is now met almost entirely by entirely domestic dairy products, and they’re even doing some exports to neighboring countries.
Cooperative work through and through
Today, the vision to empower global economies through agriculture has gone from an idea to a reality at Land O’Lakes. And that’s thanks to our dedicated members, like you.
Have you or your family completed any Land O’Lakes International Development assignments? We’d love to hear from you about your experiences. Or if you’re interested in an international technical assistance assignment, get in touch. We’ll be starting up a Farmer-to-Farmer program in Egypt, Lebanon and Bangladesh soon. Please email Gretchen Hanson at GHanson@landolakes.com.