Burton Joseph dies at 91; led grain business

by Josh Sosland
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MINNEAPOLIS – Burton M. Joseph, chief executive officer of the I.S. Joseph Company, Inc., died April 14. He was 91 years old.

While Mr. Joseph is best remembered as a grain exporter, the Minneapolis-based Joseph Company had investments in approximately 30 operating agribusiness companies. The companies were engaged in the grain and feed ingredient business, export and domestic, involving processing, storage and marketing.

Mr. Joseph is credited with playing a pivotal early role in 1963 in the initial purchases of U.S. grain by the U.S.S.R. The sales, which set the stage for the Russian Wheat Deal, began when the Soviet Union was grappling with four poor harvests in a five-year period. At the time, the Soviets were negotiating grain purchases from Australia and Canada.

In his 1973 book “Amber Waves of Grain” about the Soviet wheat purchases, James Trager described Mr. Burton’s role 10 years earlier:

“A Minneapolis feed grain dealer, Burton M. Joseph, heard the Russians were in Ottawa. His wife, Geri, now a contributing editor of the Minneapolis Tribune, was vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a power in New Frontier circles. That gave Burton Joseph entree to John F. Kennedy’s agriculture secretary, Orville L. Freeman, and he persuaded Freeman that selling grain to Russia could be good for America. He proposed that a consortium of U.S. grain companies go to Canada and work out a deal with the Russians.”

Mr. Joseph led the team of exporters to Canada for discussions. Ambitious plans early on were delayed and diminished by political opposition, labor problems and the assassination of President Kennedy. But shipments of grain to the U.S.S.R. began in 1964.

A Minneapolis native, Mr. Burton graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural biochemistry.

He was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, serving in World War II and the Korean War and holding the rank of lieutenant.

Active in civic, religious and business affairs, Mr. Burton was a member of a Secretary of Agriculture Advisory Committee and was a member of the Department of Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee for Trade.

He was active with the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation and Mt. Sinai Hospital, Temple Israel and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He was a national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mr. Joseph was predeceased by his parents, I.S. and Anna K. Joseph, and a daughter, Shelley Joseph-Kordell. He is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Geri M. Joseph; sons, Scott Joseph and Jon Joseph; grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

Services were held March 20 at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. Memorials may be sent to the Shelley Joseph-Kordell Memorial Scholarship Fund 7158, University of Minnesota Foundation, P.O. Box 70870, St. Paul, MN. 55170-3854.
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