Kai Knutson never envisioned a career in agribusiness. “I’d studied biology, and I wanted to be a college professor,” said the now-27-year-old.
Yogurt opened up his worldview.
Upon graduation from Minnesota’s Carleton College in 2011, Knutson was awarded a Watson Fellowship, offering him the opportunity for independent international travel. Knutson’s initial plan: pursue his interest in yogurt microbes by researching the origins and traditions of yogurt making.
As he traipsed through dairies in countries like Bulgaria, Finland, India, Mongolia and Nepal, Knutson found a calling. “I became more interested in understanding the system that produced yogurt than making a scientific discovery about the food itself,” he said. Before his travel ended, Knutson reached out to Land O’Lakes for a job. “It was a company I’ve always known but had a new appreciation for, as a cooperative, after working with dairy farmers across the world,” he said.
Not many young people seeking a career will come to it through world travel or soul-searching. However, rural businesses increasingly rely on their fresh perspectives to keep local outlets and offices alive in small towns.
According to the USDA 2016 “Rural America at a Glance” report, rural employment has grown slowly (1.3% between 2010 and 2015), and rural population has declined (0.3% between 2010 and 2014). In 2015, the data indicates a leveling, but statistics don’t tell the whole story.
There is a strong draw to urban and metro areas considered to be more competitive in pay and opportunity.
Eric Spell, president of AgCareers.com, said one of the biggest reasons for the move to urban areas is that rural kids who go off to a four-year college get the taste of more opportunity.
“It’s a fact that a number of kids from rural areas get accustomed to city life while in college,” he said.
Arden Hills, Minnesota, is definitely not New York City, but the Midwestern town is base for a big name, Land O’Lakes. The organization operates dairy and animal-feed manufacturing plants, as well as seed and crop-protection facilities throughout the U.S. Yet, Land O’Lakes remains a cooperative with operations in many small communities. In total, the enterprise reported $13.1 billion in revenue in 2016.
Five years ago, Beth Ford uprooted her family from New York City to join Land O’Lakes in Minnesota as the company’s chief of supply chain and operations. In 2015, she was named group executive vice president and chief operating officer. As someone who spent her formative summers detasseling corn in Iowa before moving on to big-city jobs, Ford understands the challenges of attracting people to the rural areas Land O’Lakes serves.
“Investing in people is our top priority and, I think, has been the secret to our success,” she said.
Land O’Lakes maintains an active college recruiting program, looking to universities with strong agriculture ties, such as Purdue, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota. The company offers a full range of benefits — medical, dental and competitive salaries.
“We have great talent programs, leadership-development programs and opportunities for people to grow their careers while doing something meaningful. We work very collaboratively, and it feels good,” Ford said, adding, “I think people are interested in doing something of worth and being recognized for it.”
Knutson agreed. He joined Land O’Lakes in 2013 as quality management associate at the company’s dairy foods plant in Tulare, California. Six months into the position, he had the opportunity to take part in the company’s first supply chain Talent Acceleration Program.
“I had a two-year leadership-development experience, which involved field and office training, and eventually an overseas trip to Bangladesh for an international development project,” he explained. “The experience was invaluable.”
That training, Knutson feels, prepared him for his current role as milk supply manager, which keeps him traveling to the East Coast to manage the sale of farmer members’ milk.
“Cows don’t stop producing milk,” he chuckled. “So, at any time, if we have a customer with processing issues or a partner who reaches out and said they need help, we have to react very quickly.”