Two decades ago, David Geisler became the top (and only) lawyer at what was then a regional milk cooperative in Springfield.
“They thought they needed a lawyer,” Geisler said of the board that hired him. “They just didn’t know exactly what they needed a lawyer for.”
They soon put him to good use. During Geisler’s tenure, what was then known as Mid-America Dairymen Inc. transformed into Dairy Farmers of America, the largest milk marketing cooperative in the country. DFA is now based in Kansas City and employs some 6,000 people. Along the way, Geisler helped build a full legal department that sees to the needs of the farmer-owned organization, with a special focus on the long term.
“There’s no owner of DFA that’s not a dairy farmer,” Geisler said. “They’re committed to it for generations. They don’t count on miracles.”
Geisler came to the job with versatile credentials. He served as the Greene County prosecuting attorney from 1979 to 1982 and in 1980 received the Missouri Bar Foundation’s Lon O. Hocker Award for his trial skills. He also ran as a Democrat for Congress in 1982, losing by just a whisker in a district that had leaned heavily Republican since the Civil War.
“It was a character-building experience,” he said.
After a stint in private practice and with an insurance company, Geisler was looking for a new challenge when he joined Mid-America Dairymen in 1994. The point of such cooperatives, he said, is to “assist the dairy farmer in weathering the hills and valleys of pricing for their product.”
Mid-America began aggressively pursuing new means to help its members make money by focusing not just on the milk but also on the more lucrative finished dairy products made from milk. A 1998 merger among four cooperatives created Dairy Farmers of America, with officials from Mid-America leading the charge. Today the organization has about 14,000 members across the country and owns and operates several food manufacturing companies.
“My role was to bring along all of these different segments of the transactions,” Geisler said. It was a role that brought him into contact with numerous areas of the law. He hasn’t spent much time in the courtroom, however, though he said his background in his original passion, litigation, has helped.
“I had some understanding of why people think what they think and do what they do,” he said.
That knowledge is still being put to use. DFA has faced litigation over allegations that it has monopolized the milk industry. Geisler officially retired in August, though he remains a consultant for DFA on a series of class action suits over those claims.
“As those lawsuits resolve, eventually I will fade off into the sunset, so to speak,” he said.