Kai Knutson portrait

From passion to profession

Co-op career starts with a journey around the world—and a whole lot of yogurt

It’s funny how some people end up finding their passion. You can look back at the decisions, the people that made a difference, the successes and the missteps, and see how it all fell into place. For Kai Knutson, finding a career with Land O’Lakes, Inc. started with an international experience, some timely inspiration and yogurt.

Hunting microbes

Kai didn’t always know what he wanted to do when he grew up. As many can surely sympathize, soon after making the decision to attend Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, the questions started. The biggest—what was he going to study?

“I didn’t really know,” he says. “I’d done well in my science classes. So, when I heard myself say, ‘biology,’ and people seemed satisfied, that became my answer.”

At Carleton, Kai did eventually major in biology, developing a particular interest in microbiology. He thought of pursuing a career in academia, yet when the time came to apply to graduate school and follow the path of a professor, Kai decided to chase a different opportunity—the Watson Fellowship.

Kai was one of 40 graduates from colleges and universities in the United States awarded grants to pursue a year of independent international travel. Watson Fellows create their own projects, each with a unique subject to study. Kai chose yogurt. 

“As a scientist, I wanted to learn what people knew about microbes. I needed something that people could relate to and the most obvious answer was food. Everybody eats. So, I decided that wherever I traveled, I would practice traditions of making yogurt and learn its history. I thought I might actually be able to find its origin.”

Minnesota to Mongolia

After graduation, Kai set off on his year-long trek. His travels began in Greece where he visited a number of yogurt factories, mostly small, family-owned operations. In Bulgaria, he learned to make the national dish—kisselo mialko—a thin, sour yogurt. Turkey has some of the best-documented yogurt traditions and there he learned not only the art and science of yogurt making, but also stories of its health benefits and myths of its origin.

“In Finland, I got to try a thick, stretchy yogurt unlike anything else I’ve tasted,” Kai says. “I also stayed on a dairy farm where I milked cows every day in exchange for room and board. They sold their milk to the largest co-op in Finland, and working for them was the first time I really thought of what it meant to be a member-owner.”

In Nepal, Kai says he sampled “the best yogurt in the world.” China offered a number of sweet, drinkable yogurts. He also learned most of the milk in Mongolia is produced by nomadic herders who can trace their ancestry to the Mongol empire. They spread a yogurt culture in Asia as the Vikings had in Europe.

Throughout the year, Kai traveled to 10 countries in Europe and Asia. But he didn’t find his passion as a scientist.

“I set out to find the origin of yogurt. But at some point I really realized I wasn’t going to be the scientist that did that. And it wasn’t as important to me as I thought it was.”

Inspiration in India

It was in India where things really changed for Kai. By that time, he knew a little about making yogurt but had a lot to learn about the dairy industry. So, when he arrived in Anand, the “milk capital of India,” and visited the headquarters of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. (GCMMF), the largest cooperative in Asia and exclusive marketer of the Amul brand, he was surprised by the warm welcome he received.

He was given a copy of GCMMF’s annual report and, more importantly, the memoir of the cooperative’s founder chairman, Dr. Verghese Kurien.

“I read it in three days and it changed my life,” says Kai. “I was inspired by Dr. Kurien’s passion. When I met people working for the organization he built, they all talked about how the cooperative exists for the benefit of the farmers. By helping raise up the farmers, Amul has lifted all of India.”

Amul began with just two village dairy co-ops and 247 liters of milk. In 1950, Dr. Kurien was tasked with leading the operation. He would devote his life to empowering farmers. The “Amul model” has helped India to emerge as the largest milk producer in the world, and today, GCMMF is jointly owned by more than 3 million milk producers in Gujarat.

“I believe in the co-op model because it’s democratic,” says Kai. “Member-owners elect representatives to govern the cooperative, and hold them accountable for serving their interests. When I first thought of a career in the agricultural industry, my non-negotiable criteria for employers was fair dealing with farmers.”

Dr. Kurien’s example inspired Kai to reevaluate his own professional plan. He doubts he would have thought of working for a cooperative if he hadn’t read the Amul story—or learned that one of the largest American cooperatives was close to home.

A cooperative career

Before leaving India, Kai was already searching for job openings at cooperatives in the United States. When he found an open position at Land O’Lakes, everything seemed to fit perfectly. 

“I thought, ‘If I am going to do this for a profession, it will be in the service of an organization like Land O’Lakes.’”

Kai started his career at our Dairy Foods plant in Tulare, California. As a trainee in the quality department, he came to appreciate how much goes into making our products—from the members who send ten million pounds of milk into the plant every day, to the employees who process it into butter and powders.

Six months later, he was offered a position in the first cohort of our Supply Chain Talent Acceleration Program, a two-year rotational program focused on developing future leaders. So far he’s completed rotations in a variety of departments, including Logistics and Sourcing, and even spent six months in Bangladesh with Land O'Lakes International Development analyzing the value of different types of milk procurement systems, digital fat testing and raw milk standards based on quality.

“It’s funny when I think how I’ve come to where I am now,” Kai says, “I didn’t know I wanted to work in agriculture when I grew up. But then, neither did Dr. Kurien. He was a city person with plans to become a professor of physics or metallurgy but happened to be awarded a scholarship to study dairy science in the United States.”

And as Land O’Lakes continues to grow, Kai says he wants to help ensure that our identity as a cooperative is as strong in the future as it is today.

“I am passionate about the cooperative model, more passionate than I ever was about microbiology or yogurt,” he says. “I believe that the absolutely essential condition for the development of passion is inspiration from other passionate people. Dr. Kurien inspired me. I hope in my career at Land O’Lakes to inspire others to be passionate advocates of the cooperative model.”