Chasing A Dream Built On Dairy, This Master Of Milk Came Home

Feb 4, 2017
Originally published on February 4, 2017 3:47 pm

Mike McCloskey, who runs one of the biggest dairy operations in America, is driving down a road in Puerto Rico in an unusually reflective mood.

"This is a full circle-type story, right?" he muses. "I was raised here, had such a fantastic childhood." He ticks off other way stations in his life: Mexico, California, New Mexico, and Indiana. Along the way, McCloskey built an empire of milk. Now, the dairy business has brought him back home again.

McCloskey came to Puerto Rico when he was 7 years old. He was born in Pittsburgh, but his mother was Puerto Rican. She moved back home with all six of her children when her husband died.

"I remember very clearly arriving to Puerto Rico, meeting this huge family," he says. His mother had nine siblings. There were dozens of cousins. For young Mike, it was like "arriving in paradise."

One uncle, a veterinarian, made a huge impression. He'd bring Mike and other cousins along on his truck, visiting farms. "A day out with him was full of adventures," McCloskey says.

He felt comfortable with farm animals right away. "Not only was I comfortable, somehow at that young age I just got interested in food production," he says.

It launched Mike McCloskey's journey. He became a veterinarian, working with dairy farmers, in Mexico, after his mother got re-married to a Mexican businessman. Then he moved to the U.S., for a veterinary residence at the University of California, Davis.

In California, he met his wife Sue. Before long, they were in the dairy business for themselves. They bought a whole series of dairy herds, each one bigger than the last. The first was 300 cows. Today, they own a herd of fifteen thousand cows at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana.

At the same time, McCloskey pushed the boundaries of milk quality, reducing levels of bacteria in milk far below what federal standards required. "We believed that the consumer really cared about that," he says.

He did it by keeping cows healthier, and by chilling the milk immediately after it comes from the cows.

He also had a secret advantage. In recent decades, most big-time dairy farms have come to rely on workers from Mexico. And McCloskey, effortlessly bilingual, felt at home with his workers. He says his time in Mexico helped too. "Working as a veterinarian in Mexico, I lived up in the hills," he says. "I lived in the ejidos [communally owned village farms]. I knew everything about them, just talking with them and asking where they're from. I could identify deeply with them. And they're very loyal people."

With easier communication between owner and workers, McCloskey's farms ran more smoothly. Cows got better care.

The McCloskeys reached a turning point in 1994. They were running a big farm in New Mexico, and Mike got into a fight with the cooperative that bought and processed their milk. He wanted the whole co-op to adopt the same methods he was using to produce cleaner, higher-quality milk.

"They wanted nothing to do with it," he says. "No interest. They saw no value in it."

There was a meeting at which the coop leaders basically told McCloskey to mind his own business.

"I was there when he came home," Sue McCloskey recalls. "We got out a map and we drew a circle 400 miles around our farm."

They started calling farmers and retailers within that circle, looking for partners, thinking that "there have got to be vendors and buyers out there who are looking for quality, who are looking for transparency, and who are looking for something that they can talk to their consumers about," says Sue McCloskey.

They created their own milk cooperative, called Select Milk Producers. Today, it's one of the top-ten dairy cooperatives in the country, and one of the fastest-growing. Dairy insiders call it the most aggressive co-op in the industry. It sells $2 billion worth of dairy products a year. It's part-owner of one of the largest cheese plants in the world - Southwest Cheese, in eastern New Mexico. It's set up a joint venture with the Coca-Cola Company, called fairlife, that sells a kind of reformulated milk with higher protein and calcium. Sue McCloskey came up with that idea at their kitchen table.

I ask McCloskey what drives him to move from place to place, trying new things?

"I don't know," he says. "You just look at this and think, 'I can do this better."

Sue McCloskey doesn't have any better explanation. "You've got to think that there's just something internal, that you're just not happy unless you're moving things around," she says.

Now, Mike McCloskey has come up with a new idea, a new dream that's brought him back to Puerto Rico, to an abandoned sugar cane plantation right beside a beach where he played as a boy.

He takes me there. It's beautiful. McCloskey looks more relaxed than he has all day. "We used to walk this beach when we were seven, eight, nine years old, with the local fishermen. We'd do spear-diving here. We used to fish here," he says.

McCloskey and his cousin Manuel Perez, who's also a veterinarian, take me on a drive though part of the property. Eventually, they plan to plant a new kind of pasture here, with nutritious grasses, adapted to the tropics, that scientists developed in Brazil. Right now though, part of the land is overgrown with tough, fibrous, tropical grasses, six feet tall. Other parts are water-logged because the old drainage ditches are clogged. "We couldn't even get in here initially, McCloskey tells me. "This was incredible down here. It was all flooded. You couldn't get around."

McCloskey and Perez and a small band of employees are working to clear the land and rebuild the drains. Then they will bring in cattle - a new genetic type that produces lots of milk, but can also tolerate tropical heat and insect pests.

They want to prove that a dairy can be just as efficient in the tropics as in Indiana. "We believe that the right breed [of dairy cow] and the right pasture can really revolutionize milk production in the tropics," McCloskey says. "Not only in Puerto Rico! We're looking at this as a possibility for great changes all through the tropics."

It's a daunting challenge, he admits. But it's nothing new for him and Sue, doing things that haven't been done before.

And it would be especially sweet, he says, doing it here. "I have a great love for the island, and its people, and my family here. And to end up doing that exact thing that I've loved doing for the last 50 years one more time here is quite exciting."

It unites two different kinds of dreams. There's the classic American dream of moving on to something bigger and better. But there's also an older, more personal dream, of coming back home.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We've been hearing stories of people who've pursued their American dream through food in bakeries, restaurants - now on a farm. Mike McCloskey is one of the biggest and most influential producers of milk in America - makes him sound a little bit like a cow, but he actually runs a dairy empire that spans the country. NPR's Dan Charles has his story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Mike McCloskey is a really big guy - tall and rugged, the image of a rancher. He's standing on a beach on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, far from his home in rural Indiana, but years ago, this was his home.

MIKE MCCLOSKEY: We used to walk this beach when we were seven, eight, nine, 10 years old all the time with the local fishermen, do spear diving here. We used to fish here.

CHARLES: McCloskey came to Puerto Rico when he was 7 years old from Pittsburgh. His mother was Puerto Rican. She moved back home with all six of her children, including Mike, when her husband died.

M. MCCLOSKEY: I remember very clearly arriving to Puerto Rico, meeting this huge family.

CHARLES: It was like moving to paradise, he says. He had dozens of cousins here, lots of aunts and uncles. One uncle made a huge impression. He was a veterinarian. He'd bring Mike and other cousins along on his truck, visiting farms.

M. MCCLOSKEY: A day out with him was full of adventures, and we'd - and I'd go a lot of days with him.

CHARLES: For some reason, Mike immediately felt comfortable with farm animals.

M. MCCLOSKEY: Not only was I comfortable, somehow, at that young age, I just got interested in food production.

CHARLES: And it launched a long journey with many stops along the way - first to Mexico, then on to the U.S. - California, New Mexico, Indiana. He became a veterinarian like his uncle, working for dairy farmers. Then he bought his own herds - a whole series of them, each one bigger than the last - 300 cows, a thousand cows. Today, it's 15,000 cows. He also pushed the boundaries of milk quality, reducing levels of bacteria far below what federal standards required.

M. MCCLOSKEY: 'Cause we believed that the consumer really cared about that.

CHARLES: He did it by keeping his cows healthier, also by chilling the milk right away when it came from the cows. I asked McCloskey what drives him, keeps him moving on, trying new things.

M. MCCLOSKEY: I don't know. It's just something you look at, and you say, I - you know, we can do this better. I think that's what drives us.

CHARLES: Here Sue McCloskey, Mike's wife and business partner for most of those years.

SUE MCCLOSKEY: I don't know what it is, but you've got to think that there's something just internal that - you're just not happy unless you're moving things around.

CHARLES: McCloskey had a secret advantage in the dairy business - his bicultural background. Most of the workers on big dairy farms these days come from Mexico, and McCloskey was right at home among them.

M. MCCLOSKEY: Because as a veterinarian in Mexico, I lived up in the hills. You know, I lived in the hills. I worked with these people. I knew everything about them by just talking to them and what part of the country they're from. And right away, I could - I could identify deeply with them, and they're very loyal people.

CHARLES: That meant better communication. Farms ran more smoothly. Cows got better treatment. In 1994, the McCloskeys reached a turning point. They were running a big farm in New Mexico, and Mike got into a fight with the cooperative that bought and processed their milk. McCloskey wanted the whole co-op to adopt the same methods he was using to produce cleaner, higher quality milk.

M. MCCLOSKEY: They wanted nothing to do with it. There was no interest. They saw no value in it.

CHARLES: There was a meeting where the co-op leaders basically told McCloskey to mind his own business.

S. MCCLOSKEY: I was there when he came home. We got out a map, and we drew a circle of 400 miles around our farm.

CHARLES: And they went looking for new partners within that circle.

S. MCCLOSKEY: There have got to be vendors and buyers out there that are looking for quality, that are looking for transparency and are looking for something that they can talk to their consumer about (laughter). That was, like, the - how Select was born.

CHARLES: Select Milk Producers - today, it's one of the top 10 dairy cooperatives in the country and probably the most aggressive one. It sells $2 billion worth of dairy products a year. It's part-owner of one of the largest cheese plants in the world. Together with the Coca-Cola company, it sells a kind of reformulated milk with higher protein and calcium called Fairlife. Sue McCloskey came up with that idea at their kitchen table. And Mike McCloskey has a new idea, a new dream that's brought him back to Puerto Rico, to thousands of acres of abandoned farmland right beside that beach where he played as a boy.

M. MCCLOSKEY: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

M. MCCLOSKEY: (Speaking Spanish).

CHARLES: The land used to be a sugar cane plantation, but it's overgrown now with six-foot-tall tropical grasses, trees.

M. MCCLOSKEY: We couldn't even get in here initially. This was incredible down here. It was all flooded, and you couldn't get around, and...

CHARLES: McCloskey and his cousin Manuel Perez are working together to clear the land, rebuild the drains. They want to prove that a dairy here can be just as efficient as one in Indiana, with a new genetic strain of cattle that can tolerate tropical heat and insects and new kinds of pasture grasses developed in Brazil.

M. MCCLOSKEY: We believe that the right breed and the right pastures can really revolutionize how milk can be produced in the tropics, not only in Puerto Rico. We're looking at this as a - as a possibility for great changes all through the tropics.

CHARLES: Sure, it's a huge challenge, he says, but we've always done things that nobody else has done. And I'd love to do it here, where I grew up.

M. MCCLOSKEY: To be able to go that full circle and end up doing that exact same thing that I've loved doing the last 50 years one more time here is quite exciting.

CHARLES: It brings together two different kinds of dreams - the classic American dream of moving on to whatever is bigger and better and the older personal dream of moving back home. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.