By Jeremy C. Nagel
Michigan’s Farm Bureau family lost an exemplary past leader last week with the unexpected death of Jeff Kala, president of the Presque Isle County Farm Bureau from 2013 to 2018.
Throughout an intense run of organizational involvement starting in the mid-2000s, Kala made the most of the Young Farmer program and put his leadership talents to extensive use before putting his cattleman days behind him two years ago.
His resume of Farm Bureau involvement was substantial, running the gamut from policy development and candidate evaluation to membership recruitment and state-level advisory committees.
Kala participated in district and state-level Young Farmer Discussion Meets, and graduated from ProFILE, MFB’s elite leadership development program, in 2009. He represented Presque Isle County Farm Bureau as a delegate at several State Annual Meetings, regularly attended Lansing Legislative Seminar and the Presidents’ Capitol Summit in 2015.
Through most of those years Kala managed a large cattle ranch near Onaway, applying his knowledge and experience on behalf of peers across the northern Lower Peninsula — where cattlemen have struggled most with bovine tuberculosis.
MFB Livestock Specialist Ernie Birchmeier worked closely with Kala on that persistent and contentious issue.
“Jeff was a passionate guy with a big heart,” Birchmeier said. “His efforts through Farm Bureau helped shape many programs in northern Michigan, and his involvement in the TB issue was always balanced, based on science and common sense.
“Jeff’s passion for life was evident in all that he did, from agriculture and natural resources to his adventures traveling the world. He lived life to the fullest and will be sorely missed.”
Those travels took Kala to India with a cohort of fellow Great Lakes Leadership Academy participants. MFB District 4 Director Jeff Sandborn was also on that India trip and remembers Kala with esteem.
“Jeff was always very curious about world events,” Sandborn recalled. “Some time after our India trip he went back — visited the northern part of the country, where we didn’t go, and came back with great insights gained from talking with local farmers there.
“I would’ve loved to have talked with him about his thoughts about what’s going on now in Ukraine.”
Kala and Sandborn also visited that now-embattled agricultural powerhouse nation in 2013, on a study tour co-sponsored by MFB and GreenStone Farm Credit Services. Early in the trip Kala shared his thoughts and observations on Ukrainian cattle production in this video.
In Kala, Sandborn recalls a sharp, ambitious young man who wore his passion for farming on his sleeve.
“We had some great conversations about farming,” Sandborn said. “He raised corn up near the Mackinac Bridge and liked picking my brain about raising crops down south.”
That same passion was evident when Cole Iaquinto joined the state Farm Bureau staff as the north regional manager.
“Jeff was elected county president shortly after I started in the north region, and I worked with him for five years in that position,” remembers Iaquinto, now managing member benefits and relations at the MFB home office in Lansing. “I quickly learned Jeff had a passion for agriculture, particularly for cattle producers in northern Michigan.
“Jeff was outspoken, and anyone who’s been in a meeting with him when bovine TB was the topic can attest to that. He used the word ‘accountability’ a lot and was not afraid to challenge the status quo.”
And while an issue as polarizing as TB can easily dominate a conversation, Kala strove to share his passion across the whole, wide spectrum of Michigan agriculture.
“He was an advocate for all producers,” Iaquinto said. “Jeff once told me that all members of Michigan Farm Bureau need to help and advocate to solve local issues — not just focus on the statewide issues in Lansing.”