Ed Powell’s uneasy start in ag trading: ‘What am I doing up here?’
By Jeremy C. Nagel
At some point during annual meeting I found myself chatting with an unfamiliar gentleman near our centennial history exhibit. How the conversation even started is lost in the fog of my annual meeting hangover, but my attention was piqued when he mentioned he was friends with the old manager of Michigan Elevator Exchange (MEE) and said he could put me in touch with him.
(Turned out I knew the unfamiliar gentleman after all. He handed me his card and it was Ben Kudwa. I eloquently exclaimed, “Ben! You were potatoes!”)
His buddy is Ed Powell and, as we spoke, he was literally packing his bags for a few months in warmer climes. I wanted to catch him before he left, so I called him that Friday afternoon for a preliminary chat to tide us all over until we can sit down for a more thorough conversation next spring.
Now 94, Powell lives in Portland. Almost 70 years ago, he was a fresh-faced college kid studying agricultural economics at Michigan State University. He graduated in 1950 and took his degree Up North to start his first job in the big, real world…
“A berry co-op in Alpena was looking for a manager,” Powell remembers. “They had beautiful berries up there—strawberries and raspberries—but they weren’t marketing them. Truckers were buying berries from individual farms and taking them away.
“So they came down to the ag econ department and a couple of the profs approached me. I was hired before I graduated.”
The security of having a job straight out of college didn’t make the transition easy.
“I wasn’t married. I didn’t know anybody. I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing up here?’
“But we put things together—set up canning and freezing lines at the airport and started shipping berries from there. It was a good experience; I learned a lot learned about getting on with people.”
Even so, Powell’s connections back at MSU knew he wasn’t entirely happy Up North. His ag econ cronies checked in on him periodically—and let him know about an opportunity at the Michigan Elevator Exchange, the venerable grain and bean broker with close ties to Farm Bureau.
“I started with the Elevator Exchange selling debentures,” a bond-like financial instrument used to fund the construction of MEE’s massive Ottawa Lake grain terminal, in southern Monroe County just north of the Ohio line.
Powell described his next role as “office boy,” fast-tracked to learning the grain trade through sly, ears-on learning.
“I’d listen in on a third phone line when the traders were negotiating—followed the conversation without saying anything,” he recalled. “I did that for a couple months and they gave me a starter job,” working deals with some of the co-op’s easier clients.
He’d return to an economic engineering role in the early 1960s, when he helped arrange financing for another major grain terminal in Zilwaukee, a facility he’d go on to manage himself for several years.
By that point MEE was well established as the largest grain and bean handler in the state and had been wrapped into Farm Bureau Services. Later in his career Powell would see appointment to the Chicago Board of Trade and climb the leadership ranks within Farm Bureau Services until his retirement in 1985.
NOTE: We’ll revisit Ed when he returns home in the spring. Until then, we wish him a warm winter in more comfortable climes.