Steve Bechel of Eau Galle Cheese is named to Governor’s Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0
By Steve Carlson
Governor Scott Walker announced the names of those he was appointing to his Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 on Wednesday, July 11th while he was attending Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in Marshfield, WI. Among those named to the committee of 31 (not counting the chairperson) was Steve Bechel, Vice President of Operations at Eau Galle Cheese. This task force replicates a similar Task Force appointed by then Governor Tommy Thompson in 1985. The current Task Force, like its predecessor, will have as its focus to make recommendations regarding legislative and executive actions that the State of Wisconsin can undertake to preserve a sustainable and lucrative dairy industry in this state.
Included among those named to serve on the task force are 14 farmers (from a variety of farm sizes), nine milk processers and marketers (including Bechel), and representatives from eight other allied organizations (including cooperatives, banks/financial institutions, one veterinary business, and one trade organization). Chairing the Task Force will be Dr. Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Policy Analysis at UW-Madison. The first meeting of the group is tentatively scheduled for August, 2018. The 1985 task force met during a total of 14 months before making its recommendations, and it is anticipated that a similar process will take place as well this time.
Each of the Task Force members were nominated through various organizations. In Bechel’s case, he was nominated through the Wisconsin Cheesemaker’s Association. Bechel said he was pretty excited about the varying backgrounds of each of the Task Force members and was eager to hear what each had to say.
Bechel described the situation the Task Force will be dealing with. He said for three years there have been depressed milk prices due to an overabundance of milk. He said a chief factor in this regard locally has been the importation of six million pounds of milk from Michigan and the nearby region into Wisconsin. Another factor has been a Canadian governmental action, taken a little over a year ago, putting ultra-filtrated (UF) milk from the United States at a cost disadvantage to that which is produced in Canada, thus Canadian milk processors are looking locally and away from Wisconsin to supply their needs. These actions combined with newly imposed tariffs by China on dairy products exported from the United States and a trade agreement between the European Union and Mexico that shuts out American dairy exports to Mexico have worked to greatly exacerbate the negative situation hurting both small and large farms in Wisconsin. Though Eau Galle Cheese could buy milk from elsewhere at much cheaper prices, Bechel states that would not be good for local farmers or Wisconsin farmers as a whole, and thus the company has pledged not to do this. He says to do otherwise would be to jeopardize the future of the dairy industry in Wisconsin and thus that of Wisconsin families working in the dairy industry as well as whole communities whose economies are significantly dependent on that industry.
Bechel is sensitive to these issues not just because of his position at Eau Galle Cheese. He explained that his grandfather was a dairy farmer and growing up, Bechel had the opportunity to milk cows right beside him. He also worked on other dairy farms as he worked his way through high school. His father also owned a milk route, hauling milk to the local creamery. He is very observant of the fact that the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has been decreasing precipitously while the remaining farms are getting larger and larger. Just for example, when Bechel began working at Eau Galle Cheese in the year 2000, the company was bringing in 325,000 pounds of milk per day from around 110 local farms. Today the figures have changed to 45 farms producing 410,000 pounds of milk per day.
Bechel is concerned about what he sees as a significant negativity in the public mind regarding larger farms. He, like the rest of us who drive the country roads, sees the old barns that are now dilapidated in many cases and longs for the day when every milking barn had cows in it. Unfortunately, in today’s economy, he says the reality doesn’t seem to allow for a return to such a romantic time. He believes there is room for farms of all sizes in the dairy industry and that it is counterproductive to create tension between small and large farms. He states that locally and throughout Wisconsin there are numerous great family farms producing high quality milk. For example, he said just up the road from Eau Galle Cheese, one family farm has 15 family members working on the farm, and thus the size of the farm, by necessity, must be large enough to economically support all of them. He says that the farms that are going to continue well into the future are the ones that have succession plans with sons or daughters coming back to work and eventually taking over ownership, and that it is these who are doing the expansion into larger and larger operations. Bechel states that he is worried that if those expansions are restricted by government regulations and that if the technologies are not found to make those expansions work for everybody (addressing environmental questions and potential issues related to potential cruel treatment of animals, among others), the day will come when the over abundant supply of milk in Wisconsin will become far less than needed and simultaneously the quality of milk brought in from elsewhere will not be as good. In Bechel’s perspective, the whole conversation that will take place in the Dairy Task Force 2.0 will not be about milk processors trying to get ahead or simply about sustainable incomes for farmers, but about everyone putting their heads together to make things the best possible for the dairy industry and the communities that rely upon it.
For the time being, Bechel states that the market for specialty cheeses, which are what is produced at Eau Galle Cheese, is still strong. However a threat looms on the horizon there too. Currently the European Union is working to protect what are called geographical indicators, the historic names of certain cheeses as if the only places in the world that can legitimately produce such cheeses are the locations where those cheeses originated. So for example, Eau Galle Cheese produces parmesan cheeses, but if the European Union is allowed to continue to negotiate trade deals such as it has recently done with Mexico (which caused a significant hit to American producers), such cheeses would be limited to being produced in and imported from the Parma region of Italy, unless they were labeled with distinctively different names not including the specific word “parmesan”. The problem with not being able to use the old names for products not made in their areas of origin is that it confuses consumers who will be discouraged from buying the products that heretofore they have been familiar with, simply because they are not familiar with the new name representing the same product. The same is being done in other food categories with regard to things like salami, bologna, and so on, and not just with cheese. Bechel uses the example of asiago cheese to show the fullest extent of the absurdity of this movement by the European Union. He says in this case asiago was not a very popular type of cheese until the Panera Company and Subway Restaurants began producing bagels and sandwich bread with asiago cheese on or in them. So he finds it particularly disturbing that American entrepreneurs that have made the cheese popular, helping to better sell what is produced in Italy, are now being threatened by the European Union’s trade deals that seek to shut out those who made asiago popular from being able to have their fair share of that market. An even greater irony is that in the last international cheese competition held in Milwaukee, where international judges (including from Italy) decide on which are the best cheeses in each category, in the case of Parmesan, none of the top three winners were from Italy.