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How She Leads

How She Leads: Rebecca Kenow, Land O’Lakes

A biologist by training, she’s reducing the dairy industry’s impact — one member farmer at a time.

Biologist Rebecca Kenow spent two decades managing public sector environmental programs in Minnesota and then at a petroleum refinery before becoming the first full-time director of sustainability for agricultural cooperative Land O’ Lakes several years ago.

While Land O’Lakes butter and milk may be the most familiar products for many readers, its businesses also include Purina, which feeds more than 100 million animals annually, and WinField, a crop protection, seed marketing and agronomics company.

Under Kenow’s stewardship, the $15 billion organization has made strides in animal husbandry and in encouraging individual farmer members to embrace sustainable business practices within their own organizations. It helps individual farms measure their footprint with a tool called Farm Smart, which Land O'Lakes created in cooperation with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Sustainability Council.

In May, member-owned Dorrich Dairy (PDF) in Minnesota received the national sustainability award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Among other things, the operation — which has been in the Void family since 1899 — uses wasp larvae to control fly infestations in its pastures, drastically decreasing its use of insecticide. The owners also have invested in precision agriculture technology, which guides its use of fertilizers and other soil nutrients.

“The first time I heard the word sustainability was when I was 13, and my family was asked to do a presentation at Land O’Lakes on sustainability on our farm,” recalled teenager Anna Vold, who accepted the award on behalf of her family. She struggled a while with the definition. “My mother told me sustainability meant taking the initiative to make something better for future generations. My dad responded with something along the lines of anaerobic digesters, power, and then added, ‘Yeah, what your mother said.’”

GreenBiz asked Kenow to share her leadership priorities. Below is a selection of her responses, submitted via email. Some answers were edited for length and editorial style. 

Heather Clancy: You’ve been in your current role for almost four years. What do you consider your most important accomplishment so far?

Rebecca Kenow: My biggest accomplishment to date has been getting the engagement and support by leadership of our dairy foods business and member relations team to implement an initiative to measure the environmental footprint of our dairy member owners using an industry adopted sustainability framework. It is important for our both our customers and member owners to derive value and benefit from this initiative.

The framework was developed through a collaborative, multi-stakeholder group as part of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Sustainability Council, and I have been actively involved with the development of the framework since starting with Land O’Lakes.           

Clancy: Are there concerns your team deals with as a cooperative that it wouldn’t normally have to worry about under a different corporate structure?

Kenow: Yes. Land O’Lakes, Inc. is a cooperative that is owned by 4,400 direct members. As such, the governance model is different from many organizations. Along with getting alignment on our strategies and initiatives at the senior leadership level, we also need to ensure that our efforts help our member owners be successful and profitable. 

Clancy: Can you provide a status report on the Farm Smart pilot?

Kenow: The goal of our on-farm sustainability program is to evaluate our milk supply to deliver transparent sustainability metrics and identify opportunities for continuous improvement and cost savings for member-owners.

One component of the program is to demonstrate and verify on-farm animal care and quality assurance using the National Milk Producers Federation’s (NMPF) Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program. 100 percent of our member-owners participate in this program, and participation is now mandatory for coop membership.

Another program component includes use of an outcome-based decision support tool to quantify each farm’s environmental profile. The Farm Smart tool was developed by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy using a science-based, multi-stakeholder process to develop industry-wide metrics for measuring sustainability at the dairy farm level.

Our pilot project using the Farm Smart tool started in 2013 with 30 assessments. In 2014, we expanded our implementation with 60 assessments — 18 percent of our milk supply completed. By the end of 2015, we expect to have 30 percent of our milk supply measured. 

Clancy: What is your top priority this year?

Kenow: As a company that has touch points across the entire food and agriculture supply chain, I would like us to engage in a supply chain initiative that partners with one of our large customers to integrate and demonstrate the capabilities of all of our businesses: Dairy Foods, Purina Animal Nutrition and WinField.

Clancy: What’s your thorniest challenge?

Kenow: Coming from outside the agribusiness industry into an organization that spans the entire food and agriculture sector, and into a role that leads cross-functional strategy across the enterprise, there was a steep learning curve. What I discovered through many employee conversations and unearthing the sustainability stories was [that] ongoing efforts were leading to sustainability gains, but we weren’t always measuring them or talking about them. To tell our sustainability story, we need to incorporate data that reflects our progress. We do have a good story to share, and I believe our 2014 Land O’Lakes, Inc. Corporate Responsibility Report (PDF) reflects the progress we have made in this area and we will continue our path of improvement.

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor?

Kenow: I worked for many years in the public sector. One of my best friends is an executive at a financial institution. We would have regular conversations about our work, and she would ask if I would ever consider leaving public service to work in the private sector. I had to admit that after a long career in the environmental and public health fields in government, I found the idea and thought of a new challenge appealing but also a bit risky.

Her encouragement and counsel on how I could use my leadership skills, knowledge and years of experience working in environmental policy and compliance to be a change agent and make a positive impact in the business community as well as on the environment, was critical to my career leap into the private sector.

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Kenow: Develop cross-functional and relationship building skills as teamwork and collaboration are extremely important for making progress. No matter what career path you choose, you have an opportunity to contribute to sustainability, whether it’s in supply chain, finance, HR, communications, etc. Step up and be a leader. Three “Ps” are critical to success in the sustainability profession: passion, patience and persistence.

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