An Aerial View Of A Tractor In The Field Harvesting

Beth Ford: Looking back and moving forward

From agriculture policy and trade to the retail revolution and data, it's time to prepare for 2018

The end of the year brings a time of reflection and planning for me. I take a moment to look back and see what I learned, and then I make sure those learnings inform my plans for the coming year. Sometimes, I make a list. This year, I thought I’d share it. Here are the most important lessons/insights from 2017 in food and ag, and the three things I’ll be watching in 2018.

Looking back:

  1. Trade has never been more essential for Agriculture. The trade policy decisions made or yet to be made this year—NAFTA, TPP, etc.—will have a lasting impact on the business of agriculture, an industry that clearly benefits from healthy trade.

  2. Retail is changing moment-by-moment. The retail environment of 2017 is nearly unrecognizable from its past—from new formats to consolidation. Companies that aren’t constantly innovating and showing their agility will not keep up.

  3. Mass automation and intimate data are no longer just storylines in sci-fi movies. The challenges of labor availability in ag, for instance, has driven faster movement to robotics and automation on the farm. Similarly, data is available today to help farmers use customized diagnostics to figure out what will grow where and how to grow more with less.

  4. Owning the data is the name of the game. Insights became even more valuable, and are becoming even more specific, as all companies in all industries move into e-commerce. In addition, small and agile innovators, like Vermont Creamery, used their digital presence to connect with consumers in a very personal way.

  5. Grazing is a thing. The consumer is no longer defining meals as their parents did. This has given rise to convenience and portability becoming even more relevant and important.

  6. There’s value in the chain. Pressure is increasing on retailers to move back into the value chain.

  7. Walmart is building a processing facility for drinking milk and Costco now owns animals. This pressure in retail will drive these types of changes as everyone looks to control costs. It will likely mean a more aggressive push into store brands and even more pressure on consumer packaged goods companies. There’s no hiding from the curious consumer. All companies must live the values they espouse and ensure that their brands reflect them for the consumer.

  8. Feeding the growing population has never been more important. It became clear this year, however, that it won’t be a linear journey. We will need resilience to weather the peaks and valleys along the way.

Moving forward:

  1. The intersection of Ag, Food and Technology must merge, not collide. As retail consolidation and competition increase at the exact time consumers’ want more information about where their food comes from, it will be key for companies like ours to make sure it all works together to produce more with less, from farm to fork.

  2. Washington, perhaps more than weather, will affect our nation’s farms. From the Farm Bill to trade policy, we must maintain our involvement in protecting farmers and getting clarity regarding trade and immigration policies so we are not out of position with our key trade partners and competitors.

  3. Big brother is a helpful advocate. Artificial Intelligence and Big Data are not part of a fad. We will see, and benefit from, even more rapid movement and investments in this area next year.

2017 has taught us a lot here at Land O’Lakes. I’m looking forward to putting those lessons into making 2018 even better.