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. By DAN CHARLES
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.