When it comes to dairy, France and Wisconsin share common histories and aspirations

Cows walking to a new field.

Story by Laura Paine

The Wisconsin grazing community has had a bond with France since the first dairy grazier cracked open the book, Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin. Translated into English in the late 1980s, this foundational 1956 work on managed grazing reached us just as the Wisconsin grazing movement was beginning to take off. 

Another Andre, Dr. Andre Pflimlin, a dairy researcher with the French Academy of Agriculture, has watched the Wisconsin grazing movement since its birth in the late 1980s. Grassland 2.0 had the opportunity to host him and his colleagues when they came back to Wisconsin last fall.  It was Pflimlin’s third visit to Wisconsin over about 30 years and together we commiserated over what the Wisconsin grazing movement had once been, the headwinds it has today, and how managed grazing could help revitalize the dairy industry both here and in France.

Jean Yves Penn’s 125 acre dairy farm in western France.

Andre, dairy farmer Jean Yves Penn, and I spent our week together in September visiting farms and talking about our respective dairy sectors. I was struck by the strong similarities in both biophysical and social context. Our climates and soils are similar enough that management practices can be shared. Our dairy sectors are both known for our specialty cheeses from artisan-scale cheese plants with locally produced milk. Wisconsin accounts for nearly 50% of high value, specialty cheese production in the US and France’s specialty cheese reputation speaks for itself!

In spite of these successes in France and Wisconsin, both dairy sectors are under pressure to consolidate and industrialize milk production. Over the last decade, the total number of dairy cows in Wisconsin has stayed constant at about 1.2 million, but those cows are now distributed over 40% fewer farms. Average herd size has nearly doubled to right around 200 cows. The number of CAFOs in the state has doubled during that period as well.

In both France and Wisconsin, deliberate efforts are being made to build on a historic culture of artisanship in our dairy industries. But similar to the influence of US food and agriculture policy on Wisconsin, France’s membership in the European Union has created external pressures that influence the effectiveness of internal policies. The removal of dairy quotas by the European Union in 2015 has been the latest and largest challenge, but France’s policies and traditions have helped keep consolidation at bay.

Cows drinking at Jean Yves Penn’s dairy farm in western France.

The average dairy herd in France about 72 cows, less than half that in Wisconsin and less than a quarter of the US average (317 cows). Among France’s 50,000 dairy farms, there are three main systems. As in Wisconsin, most of the milk produced (75%) goes toward fresh milk and low value industrial products like powdered milk and commodity cheese. These cows are mainly confined and fed a corn silage-based diet.

The other 25% is the source of France’s dairy reputation. This sector taps into the secret of terroir or “taste of place”: the role that unique soil and climate conditions play in shaping the flavor of foods like cheese and wine. Unlike milk from confined cows, milk from grazed cows takes on unique and complex flavors through the fresh pasture they consume. Skilled cheesemakers use those unique flavors to make one-of-a-kind, award-winning cheeses. France’s specialty dairy products come from two distinct regions: Lowland grassland farms which produce grass-based and non-GMO products, and mountain grassland farms which specialize in Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) programs and organic production. These premium markets exist because many consumers support the value they stand for and deliver in terms of environmental stewardship, economic sustainability, and social benefits. They’re sought after for their flavor and their story.

Cheesemakers making adjustments to the vat while making pleasant ridge reserve cheese.
Upland Cheese Cheesemakers – including owner Andy Hatch (right) – making Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese. Photo credit: Uplands Cheese

When Dodgeville, WI dairy graziers Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude decided to diversify their operation with cheesemaking in the late 1990s, they looked to France for inspiration. Working with French alpine cheesemakers and the UW Center for Dairy Research, Mike developed his own Beaufort-style cheese recipe that capitalizes on the unique qualities of the diverse pastures on their farm. The result is Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most award-winning cheeses in American history and still going strong after 20+ years. The farm and cheese business have now been transferred to a new generation, and partners Scott Mericka and Andy Hatch continue to demonstrate the potential of Wisconsin’s dairy sector to thrive in ways that protect our heritage and environment.

While Wisconsin doesn’t have a Protected Designation of Origin program like France’s, programs like our Master Cheesemaker program build a culture for artisan cheesemakers to create unique, award-winning cheeses using locally produced milk. With premiums for their products, cheesemakers can afford to offer premiums to their farmer partners.

The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program is unique in the nation and is an example of the kind of activity that can change the direction of an industry by providing support for private sector development. The program is offered through the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research and is supported by Wisconsin’s dairy checkoff program (money taken out of the farmer’s milk check to support marketing) and industry trade groups like the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association. Among Wisconsin’s 1200 licensed cheesemakers only about 5 percent have completed the three years of coursework and apprenticeship to become Master Cheesemakers. This elite group has been instrumental in producing winning Wisconsin cheeses year after year in contests such as the World Championship Cheese Contest. In 2022, Wisconsin was responsible for seven of the top 20 cheeses in the contest.

Wisconsin will always be America’s Dairyland, but consolidation, if allowed to continue, will dramatically alter our landscape and the fabric of our rural communities. Does it matter how Wisconsin’s 1.2 million dairy cows are distributed across the landscape? Would it be better to have 6500 biodiversity-enhancing pasture-based dairy farms producing milk with the unique flavors of Wisconsin? Or 650 2000-cow CAFOs producing milk that all tastes the same? It’s estimated that each Wisconsin dairy cow generates $34,000 in economic activity in the community where the farm is located. Do we want that economic activity spread out across many communities, or do we want it concentrated in a few places?

Dairy farming is not just an economic engine for Wisconsin. It’s part of our history and culture. And it can help protect clean water, promote soil health and productivity, enhance biodiversity, and foster community vitality.  In the face of the national and international pressures to expand, consolidate and commodify, we must do more than save farms. We must shore up the elements of these regional food systems that provide unique, flavorful foods in a regenerative system. The farms, processors and institutions Andre, Jean Yves, and I visited that week exemplify some of the solutions we need. Wisconsin’s and France’s advantage is that we still have a strong foundation of these systems that have historically served us so well. Realigning policies and programs and reshaping them for the future are the keys to rebuilding a healthy, thriving dairy industry in Wisconsin.