With its branded product line, a national market, and a few breakthroughs for export sales, BelGioioso Cheese is a model for the future of Wisconsin's cheese and dairy industry.
That statement was made by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director John Umhoefer to attendees of the "Cows to Curds to Consumers" field day.
The event included tours of BelGioioso's modern cheese slicing, packaging, and shipping plant in the town of Ledgeview at the eastern edge of the Green Bay metropolitan area and the Gerrits family's Country Aire dairy farm near Greenleaf in Brown County.
Geared to state legislators, local government officials, state government department administrators, and business representatives, the event was one in a series, sponsored by the Dairy Business Association (DBA) and the cheese makers association.
It was coordinated by DBA lobbyist Shawn Pfaff of the Madison-based Capitol Consultants Inc.
After starting in 1979 at a rented cheese plant in Wrightstown where aged Provolone was made, BelGioioso founder and company president Errico Auricchio now oversees a company that has seven specialty cheese production plants in eastern Wisconsin and a whey processing plant that makes a high protein livestock feed and lactose powder.
The facility constructed here in 2010 also houses the company offices.
Specializing in the production of one or more of the company's 18 varieties of cheese (28 when counting variations), BelGioioso has three plants in the Pulaski area north of Green Bay.
In addition, they have two near Denmark southeast of Green Bay, one west of Freedom in Outagamie County, one (the former Park Cheese) near Byron in southern Fond du Lac County and the whey processing plant north of Sherwood in Calumet County.
Each cheese plant specializes in the production of one or more of the company's specialty Italian cheeses - recipes obtained from Italy or devised here, including the mixing of cow and sheep milk in one case. The Auricchio family has a history of making Provolone in Italy dating to the late 1800s.
BelGioioso relies on milk produced in Wisconsin to make its cheeses ranging from its top volume seller - fresh mozzarella - to a few that are aged for up to 18 months.
That milk is procured from about 200 dairy farms - all within 40 miles of the receiving plant.
BelGioioso does not disclose milk intake or cheese production volumes but the milk receipts dropped by up to 150,000 pounds per day during a week of hot and humid weather in the area during mid-July, according to vice-president for finance Mark Schleitwiler, who has been with the company for 25 years.
Most of the milk is picked up in trucks owned by BelGioioso but some is delivered by independent contracted haulers.
What's most important for making top quality cheese is that the milk be as fresh as possible, Auricchio emphasizes.
On that point, about 99 percent of BelGioioso's milk supply is at the plants in less than 24 hours after it was in the cows. It's the "fresh milk that makes great cheese," Auricchio stressed.
Asked if BelGioioso has any special standards for its milk supply, Auricchio replied that what's desired is conveyed to the farmer patrons by the premiums being paid for low somatic cell counts and high percentages of butterfat, protein, and other solids.
"We are the customer of the farmer."
Schleitwiler noted that 15-20 cows support one job in a specialty cheese plant. BelGioioso has about 550 employees at its nine locations today.
Auricchio also views Wisconsin as an ideal natural setting for making cheese. "If you want to make a movie, go to California but if you want to make cheese, go to Wisconsin," he told the tour group. "Wisconsin cheese is a natural."
Among the more familiar cheese names in the BelGioioso lineup of branded products are Asiago, Fontina, Parmesan, Provolone, Romano, and Ricotta.
Those less familiar or that are the result of recipes developed by the company are American Grana, Auribella, Burrata, CreamyGorg, Crescenza-Stracchino, Crumbly Gorgonzola, Italico, Kasseri, Mascarpone, Pepato, and Peperoncino.
(BelGioioso's website states that all of its cheeses are gluten-free and it identifies several varieties that are suitable for vegetarians and others that are kosher certified. It also indicates that all of its milk shipper farmer patrons have signed a pledge that they do not use any bovine somatotropin in their herds.)
Specialty cheeses generate more dollars both for the manufacturer and the dairy farmer, Auricchio stated.
He also saluted the industry innovations that have found new uses for whey, now accounting for about 10 percent of the value of milk, and recalled that in his early days in the business it was costing the company $50 a load to dispose of whey.
The "Cows to Curds to Consumers" tour attendees were conducted through the packaging and distribution facilities by Schleitwiler and by Francis Wall, BelGioioso's vice-president for marketing.
When counting cheese mixes, package sizes, and other variables, BelGioioso processes about 2,000 different units through the 200,000 square foot facility here, the visitors learned.
Auricchio noted that Costco is one of the company's major customers. Because of Costco's stores in countries such as South Korea, BelGioioso's cheeses are finding their way into international markets, which account for about 5 percent of sales today, he said.
Many of the start-of-the art automated procedures in the cheese slicing, shaping, weighing, and packaging are conducted on equipment that the BelGioioso team self designed to serve its specific needs.
The company was its own general contractor for the construction of the facility here and employed masons, electricians, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning specialists as needed, Schleitwiler explained.
When asked about the number of companies that BelGioioso supports today in the purchases of boxes, labels, film, and other supplies, Schleitwiler said the total is lower than one might expect because of recent consolidations within those industrial sectors.
He added, however, that BelGioioso tries to protect itself against any interruption of supply by having at least two or three commercial providers of each of the items used in its daily operations.
During the question and answer period at the end of the luncheon that followed the plant tour, the BelGioioso executives were asked to describe the major challenges they have faced or continue to face.
Schleitwiler mentioned the overall field of regulations, which are now evolving to include special standards set by customers along with third party inspections and credentialing on food safety and operational practices.
Auricchio asked governmental entities to drop old regulations as they come along with new ones. "But they're adding on only," he observed. "Life becomes more complex."
Another continuing challenge, emanating mainly from Europe, is the geographical identification associated with cheese names - a phenomenon that prevents BelGioioso and other manufacturers from selling some of their specialty cheeses in Europe, Auricchio pointed out.
That issue is definitely not one that legitimately revolves around cheese quality, he commented.
The BelGioioso executives are very happy with the quality of their work force but they cited two items of local concern.
They mentioned differing attitudes among local government officials as the company acquired existing plants or built new ones.
They also indicated that there is a general lack of understanding by the public about the crop growth, agricultural processing, and waste disposal practices that are in place today.
Regarding the fate of federal farm legislation in the coming months, there was an overall confidence that "common sense" would eventually prevail.
In his role as a lobbyist for the DBA, Pfaff emphasized that a major goal in his efforts would be to assure that any new legislation does not include a "supply management" provision that would limit increases in milk production.