They traded in their t-shirts for a suit and tie. They took off their favorite hat revealing their white foreheads and hard work and used their brains for making marketing decisions. They slipped off their boots, put on their wingtips and headed to Lansing and Washington D.C. on behalf of their peers, sacrificing family time, a few pounds of milk and the peace of mind knowing all was well in the barn at home.
They were the epitome of leadership letting their fellow dairymen know they had their backs. Their broad shoulders took the bulk of criticism while they took care of their cows and kids at home.
They were the courageous leaders who have carried the membership of the state’s largest dairy cooperative from year one to year 100. Six men would hold the position in a century. They were the Presidents of MMPA.
In the beginning, a dairy farmer from Lansing was the cooperative’s chosen one to lead in the infant years of the MMPA. Nathan P. Hull served from the beginning to 1936 and developed the concepts of milk marketing that became the standards across the country. He took the cooperative from a questionable creation deep into the decade of the Great Depression. He also served as one of the early presidents of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).
Hull handed the reins over to a farmer from Fair Haven, Fred Meyer in 1936. He served through 1944 and did double duty as President and General Manager of MMPA in 1941 and 1942. The path wasn’t easy for Meyer as he guided the cooperative through World War II and the problems with the United Mine Workers. He effectively brought MMPA into the next era of dairy marketing where strength in the marketplace was vital.
The little town of Osseo in a southern border county was where the next President called home. Ivan K. Maystead served from 1944 to 1955. Well educated through Hillsdale College and Michigan State College, Maystead guided the cooperative into a larger advertising program breaking into radio and TV advertising and thus enjoyed a fifteen percent increase in Class I bottle milk sales. Under his leadership, MMPA bought the Elsie Creamery, the Fairview Dairy, saw the completion of the Ortonville Station and brought the Holland and Marquette markets under the MMPA umbrella.
Described as one of the most charismatic MMPA Presidents was Glenn Lake of North Branch. He led from 1955 until 1981. In his 26-year tenure, Lake became the leading nationwide voice for dairy farmers as the President of the NMPF. Right out of the gate, Lake and General Manager Jack Barnes were instrumental in establishing the first over-order “Super-Pool” in 1956. According to former General Manager John Dilland, the success of the Michigan Super Pool also led to the establishment of the Great Lakes Milk Marketing Federation which eventually included cooperative participation from the Great Lakes to Florida by forming the Great Lakes-Southern Milk Inc., organization for price coordination allowed under the Capper-Volstead Act.
Lake influenced political leaders on ag policy as he had the ear of John F. Kennedy and made himself available to meet with him when then President-Elect Kennedy requested a meeting. His influence continued with six U.S. Presidents as he brought the dairyman’s personal point of view to each president.
When Lake retired, a dairy producer from Kinde moved into the office, Elwood Kirkpatrick. John Dilland described Kirkpatrick as a masterful president who was low-key and patient. According to Dilland, he allowed full discussion at the board meetings but was always able to bring the board to a consensus before a decision was made. His calm demeanor helped when discussions got contentious as he never got rattled.
Kirkpatrick followed his predecessors as the president of the NMPF and president of Dairy Management, Inc. He was also the very first president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council recognizing the importance of exports for the success of the U.S. dairy industry.
This year at the 100th annual meeting of MMPA, a dairy producer from St. Johns presided over the meeting. Ken Nobis, the most recent of six men to take over the leadership of the cooperative, has been in office since 2007.
Nobis has led through plant expansions, watched multigenerational farms disperse and maneuvered through the heightened public focus on animal welfare. Realizing relationships are key, Nobis has personified that leadership quality.
His generous leadership has been fleshed out in his cooperative spirit when working with our political leaders at the state and national level. And when the Flint water crisis hit, under a Nobis presidency, MMPA stepped up to the plate to donate milk.
Hull, Meyer, Maystead, Lake, Kirkpatrick and Nobis: Six farmers, six fathers, six husbands. And six leaders who took a new concept called a cooperative and successfully cultivated the integrity needed to sustain through 100 years of “marketing the members milk to the greatest possible advantage.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of the Michigan Milk Messenger.