In 1995, exports were an afterthought for the U.S. dairy industry. That’s when Dairy Management Inc. created and funded the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) to change that.
Skeptics were aplenty back then. The industry needed someone who could explain exports factually, clearly, and concisely — without hype.
The job was more than communications. It required analysis of complex factors, such as global milk production, consumer demand, competitive dynamics, foreign trade regulations, currency exchange rates, and geopolitical developments.
Alan Levitt emerged to tell the U.S. export growth story for decades with a commanding grasp of dairy trade data and statistics.
Levitt died Sunday after a battle with leukemia. He was 59.
Brought emerging trends and exports
In a USDEC mini profile several years ago, Levitt said he wanted to be the "eyes and ears" for USDEC members. "My goal is to be on top of emerging trends and make those known to members so they can act on them in a meaningful way."
Levitt did that and then some with character and class. People who worked with him used words like generous, thoughtful, kind, genuine, humble, honest, and helpful to describe Levitt.
"He was especially good at distilling the month-to-month trade and economic developments into compelling, user-friendly charts and graphs," recalled Tom Suber, the founding president of USDEC. "Writing and analytical skills aside, Al brought quirky humor, a ready smile, and professional reliability that delivered actionable information to our members, all the while making close friends inside and outside the organization."
Levitt started as a contractor for USDEC and eventually became a full-time employee.
"I personally witnessed his ability to assuage even the most skeptical farm journalists with historical perspective and compelling facts," said Suber of those early days. "All-in-all, I consider him critical to whatever success USDEC has had in motivating the export growth of the U.S. dairy industry. Al will be fondly missed."
Peter Gutierrez, now retired, recalled Levitt's help when Gutierrez was at Agri-Mark, a USDEC member company.
"Al had unique talents he would share with us if one asked, and occasionally I did," said Gutierrez. "I used to do a little market letter for my customers. It was stuff I learned from Al. I took the license to emulate his style to a certain extent. It helped my customers understand what was happening."
Gutierrez said Levitt could "translate dairy economics, which is a language all of its own." Over 25 years of Levitt tracking and chronicling U.S. dairy exports, volume climbed more than 500% as the value leapt more than 700%.
Even as his health faltered in recent years, Levitt kept a close eye on the numbers.
Used both his head and his heart
"I relied on Al Levitt for expert analysis of dairy markets," said Tom Vilsack, former president and CEO of USDEC. "In his head, he knew the numbers, and, in his heart, he understood that behind those numbers were the farmers and workers in the industry that produced the best dairy products in the world. He committed his life to their well-being."
Levitt retired last year to spend more time with his family, but he still shared his perspective with Krysta Harden, named USDEC's president and CEO in February.
"He was trusted, respected by all, and will be missed," said Harden.