Tom Meersman
Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS: Chris Policinski has led Land O’Lakes since 2005 and has steered the Minnesota-based giant cooperative out of some businesses and acquired others to strengthen its three core divisions of consumer food, animal feed and crop supplies.

(The company’s operations include a processing plant in Kent that employs more than 150 people.)

At the company’s annual meeting earlier this month, Policinski reported another year of record earnings, despite slightly lower sales because of the struggling farm economy.

In an interview, he discussed reasons for the company’s success and answered questions about what’s ahead for farmers and the ag sector during the next few years of the Trump administration, touching on trade policy, immigration and other topics.

Q: Talk about your strategy at Land O’Lakes and why it has been successful.

A: It’s probably easiest to see in our food business. We’re taking consumer insights and putting them into product-based innovations, sometimes in categories that are kind of sleepy. We take butter and all of a sudden you have spreadable butter with canola oil. Or school lunch programs where most folks, including us, sell cheese products or dairy products and it’s all about price. We’re competitive on price, but we’d rather innovate to remove some salt and fat and make the product healthier and still tasty.

Q: There’s a lot of change being discussed in Washington, and President Donald Trump has called on a number of business leaders to discuss policies. If the president invited you to the White House, what would you advise him about trade policy?

A: There’s a lot of uncertainty right now. We have a new administration open to new thoughts. If you focus on the destination and not the journey, from an agriculture and food industry perspective, the idea of lowering regulations is helpful and could stimulate growth. But I think we have to be very careful around trade.

Q: How so?

A: Ag is incredibly dependent on overseas markets. In dairy alone, plus or minus 15 percent of dairy as an industry is exported. That’s one in seven days’ worth of production that is sold overseas. To bring that down to a company perspective, we make a great deal of protein powder in some of our facilities and most of that powder does go overseas. So it’s important to us and important to jobs for our industry.

Q: How about changes in immigration policies?

A: Very broadly, our economic growth depends on having a workforce. Ag is very dependent on immigrant labor, and we need to have a rational approach to that to keep our industry in good shape. So we’re very engaged through our industry associations in those discussions. A little less regulation in some areas of agriculture would be good, but I think we have to be very careful about trade and immigration as it relates to growth and how we get our work done.