The U.S. Dairy Exporter Blog: Market Analysis, Research & News

  • Michigan Dairy Farmer Fueled Vision for Exports

    By Mark O'Keefe May 18, 2016

    Michigan farmer Elwood Kirkpatrick, the U.S. Dairy Export Council’s first chairman, died Sunday. He left a lasting legacy.

    The year was 1995. Beef, cotton, wine, almonds and other U.S. industries had established robust export organizations. The U.S. dairy industry had not.

    Elwood_Kirkpatrick10-075944-edited.jpgElwood Kirkpatrick, president of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, characteristically puffed a cigarette in a Washington, D.C. hotel booth. He had a decision to make: Was he willing to serve as the first chairman of the fledgling U.S. Dairy Export Council?

    Kirkpatrick leaned across the table and looked at Tom Suber, the new organization’s president.

    “I need you to tell me, from your heart of hearts. Will this succeed?” Suber recalled Kirkpatrick asking.

    On Monday (May 16), Elwood C. Kirkpatrick died at his Michigan home under hospice care. He was 79.

    USDEC did succeed, with Kirkpatrick serving as chairman for nine years. This was on top of his other responsibilities. 

    He was a lifetime dairy farmer who led the Michigan Milk Producers Association for 27 years (1981–2007). Among other things, he served as a board member of Dairy Management Inc., the Michigan State Fair and North Huron Schools.

    Bridge between early stakeholders

    “Elwood Kirkpatrick brought legitimacy to the fact there was this substantive effort to grow U.S. dairy exports,” said Suber. That exchange in the hotel booth illustrated his thoroughness and commitment. 

    “Elwood was seeking, as any good accountant would, a final testing of the assumptions,” said Suber. “Was the staff committed? Were we counting on overly rosy assumptions of the markets? Had we done our due diligence before we put his considerable integrity and credibility on the line?”

    The gamble paid off.  

    In 1995, U.S. dairy export volumes were the equivalent of 4.4 percent of the U.S. milk supply. By 2015, the portion of U.S. milk going into products and ingredients used overseas more than tripled, to 14 percent.

    Kirkpatrick served as an early bridge in a historically unprecedented dairy partnership between diverse U.S. stakeholders: farmers, processors and USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. USDEC is managed by Dairy Management Inc.

    “It was important having Elwood and Tom Suber working together,” said Tom Gallagher, chief executive officer for DMI, a role he assumed in 1995.  “Elwood was the chairman of a large co-op. He was instrumental in getting the checkoff established. He was principled.”

    Elwood99.jpg

    Kirkpatrick got Leprino Foods, Dean Foods and Kraft Foods to become members of USDEC because he was able to “communicate the necessity of processors and farmers working together in the global market,” said Suber. In addition, “the fact that a Midwest cooperative leader was willing to join with a national group like ours showed that this was going to help all farmers nationally instead of just those geographically located to benefit from exports.”

    Long-range vision across oceans

    Jerry Kozak, retired president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said he vividly remembers Kirkpatrick’s vision for exports in the early days of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

    “Back then, the notion held by most was that the U.S. dairy industry was primarily a domestic industry and that the importance of exports was easily dismissed,” Kozak said. Kirkpatrick “fought for the industry to stay focused in building resources to assist both cooperatives and proprietary companies in investing in export markets."

    "And, oh boy, was he right! Elwood was a visionary who saw the huge potential of the value of the U.S. dairy industry becoming a major player in the global arena,” Kozak said.  

    Ability to find unity

    Kirkpatrick had a way of unifying people for the common cause.

    “His gentlemanly manner helped bring together farmers, co-op leaders and other industry players to achieve results,” Kozak said. “Elwood could also be tough, persistent and very persuasive.”

    That observation was affirmed by Velmar Green, a Michigan dairy farmer who served on the Michigan Milk Producers Association board while Kirkpatrick was MMPA president.

    “I think Elwood's greatest attribute was his ability to hear divergent views on an issue and get them resolved with everyone working together,” Green said. “We had heated discussions on many issues before the board, but with his leadership we always ended the discussions in a united position.”

    Kirkpatrick put his “full time and heart” into working for the success of the dairy industry, Green said.   

    Current MMPA President Ken Nobis called Kirkpatrick a “strong and dedicated leader” whose vision extended beyond state and national boundaries.

    “He realized that if we were to continue to grow our industry, we needed to look outside the borders of the U.S.  He recognized that a growing middle class in other parts of the globe would want to enhance their diets with higher protein products like dairy."

    Higher prices, more security for U.S. dairy industry

    Success required hard work above and beyond his many other duties.

    “Realizing that the U.S. had little experience exporting dairy, he knew the industry could use some help getting our foot in the dairy export world. He put in long hours helping to bring the industry together in the formation of the U.S. Dairy Export Council,” Nobis said.

    Jim Mulhern, current president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, saw Kirkpatrick's vision for exports even before the U.S. Dairy Export Council formed.

    “When the world market was little more than a dumping ground for subsidized European exports and low-cost product from New Zealand, Elwood argued long and convincingly that we needed to establish a U.S. presence in that market or risk losing ground,” Mulhern said. “Where few others could see any potential, Elwood saw opportunity. And to his everlasting credit, others became convinced that we needed to get into the dairy export game."

    “Today, the export results speak for themselves. If we didn’t have world demand for the 25-30 billion pounds of milk that we currently export, our domestic milk prices would be much lower. Our industry is stronger and more secure because of Elwood’s leadership. We mourn his passing as we salute his accomplishments,” Mulhern said. 

    Leadership qualities: calm, reasonable, reflective

    Kirkpatrick was a steadying influence, like a ballast on a ship.

    “He was calm. He was reasonable. He was reflective. Leaders like that are rare,” said Suber.

    His skills and demeanor complemented those of the gregarious Tom Camerlo, a long-time close friend and farmer leader who followed Kirkpatrick as USDEC's chairman.

    The two shared a periodic fondness for martinis. At group dinners, they sometimes playfully jockeyed to see who could persuade the waiter to grace their drink with extra garnish, prompting laughter from those around the table and a look of bemusement from the waiter, Suber recalled.

    "I’d like a dry martini, please, but with some extra olives, say four," Camerlo would say. Kirkpatrick would up the ante: "That’s fine, but I’d like mine with five olives."

    This week, the entire U.S. dairy industry raises a glass to toast Elwood C. Kirkpatrick, remembering how this Michigan farmer upped the ante for exports, making a gamble that would pay off for decades to come.

    ***

    A funeral service will be held on Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Bad Axe Free Methodist Church in Bad Axe, Michigan. Memorials may be offered to Heartland Hospice or to the Bad Axe Free Methodist Church. Condolences can be shared online through this obituary from MacAlpine Funeral Home. 

    Learn more about the history of the U.S. Dairy Export Council:

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    The U.S. Dairy Export Council is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) through the producer checkoff that builds on collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to enhance global demand for U.S. dairy products.

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