WASHINGTON – Maryland dairy farmer Kevin Leaverton knew that if he didn’t eat the cow-brain soup, he wasn’t going to close the deal.
Leaverton, who says he would eat “almost anything,” was trying to sell cow embryos in Central Europe when his hosts presented him a bowl of the soup at the height of the mad cow disease scare.
He hesitated. His interpreter kicked him under the table, whispering, “You’ll eat it, and you’ll eat it now.”
Leaverton ate it.
“I’m always open to anything people put in front of me,” Leaverton said — though he was referring to business proposals, not cranial cuisine.
As the head of international marketing for two Maryland companies that export bull semen, cow embryos and live animals, Leaverton travels the world trying to find buyers in 45 countries.
His buyers are farmers, governments, other businessmen — anybody who needs bull semen or cow embryos to bolster their local breeds, usually for better milk production. Raising cattle with favorable genetic strains can take decades, and usually only one out of 10 bulls makes it through a rigorous five- year testing period to be considered a proven sire.
The bulls can be tapped for sperm twice a week, but cows can be “flushed” for their embryos only four to five times a year, making the price of embryos $200 to $2,000 each while semen sells for $5 to $25 per unit.
Leaverton is on the road nearly as much as he is at his parents’ Queen Anne’s County home, where he lives and runs the offices for Shore Genetics Inc. and Kevrel Holsteins. Trinkets from his travels are scattered throughout the house, with one dining room window devoted to Russia, one to China and another to Holland.
But trinkets are all he brings home — he said he tries to leave his international business side at the office.
“When I see that Bay Bridge, it’s like, man I’m home,” Leaverton said. “I can come home, relax, put a different set of clothes on and have a different life.”
His “different life” is the routine for the farmers he knows, but he tries not to let that separate them.
“You always have to be inside the group,” he said.
He takes that motto just as seriously when he is travelling overseas, where he does all that he can to “bend and flex to their culture.” Though he has to deal with plenty of cultural nuances, like cow-brain soup, he said he considers alcohol the “biggest issue on the road.”
In China, where he represented the Maryland Department of Agriculture at a series of forums in May, that meant drinking countless shots of hard liquor, starting with lunch. In Russia, it meant vodka. In Germany, it meant beer. In Ireland, it meant whiskey.
“They’re testing you. There’s no doubt about that,” said Leaverton, who exercises and drinks lots of water at home to prepare for the rigors of trips that can last three weeks or bounce him across 14 countries in eight days.
“Mentally, I have to have these challenges to keep going. If not, I’d probably go crazy,” he said.
Leaverton, 37, said he has taken businesses that relied on distributors and other middlemen 10 years ago and turned them into independent machines, where the owners have much more control over their products and their profits.
“He’s his own independent self. He has his own ideas on how things ought to work and operate,” said his father, Reed Leaverton, who sometimes worries that his son has lost out on a family life because of his business.
But Kevin Leaverton said he made his choice.
While he says he is a farmer as much as he is a businessman — he milks the cows at his parents’ dairy farm every day he is at home — the business world is where he thrives.
“He was always trying to do business with somebody, even while everyone else was on break,” said state Agriculture Secretary Hagner R. Mister, who traveled to Trinidad with Leaverton last year. “He’s not going to sit behind the door or in a chair. He’s going to be out there doing his job.”
Leaverton said he enjoys the challenge.
“You’ve got to be hungry,” he said.
Even, sometimes, for things like cow-brain soup.