WCMA Recognition

WCMA's annual Recognition Awards shine a light on those who have gone above and beyond to contribute to the current and future success of the dairy industry. Each year, honorees are nominated and selected by their peers in industry, and are formally recognized at CheeseCon and CheeseExpo.

Submit Your Nominations

WCMA is currently accepting your nominations for our 2025 Recognition Awards.  Please submit the names of your nominees via the links below by close of business on August 23, 2024 for consideration by WCMA's Recognition Committee in September.

WCMA Cheese Industry Champion Award

WCMA Distinguished Service Award

WCMA Luminary Award

WCMA Vanguard Award

WCMA Babcock Award

Please see information about each award and our 2024 recipients below.  Questions about WCMA's industry recognition program may be directed to WCMA Executive Director John Umhoefer.

2024 WCMA Recognition Awards

WCMA is pleased to announce the 11 winners of its 2024 Recognition Awards!

These trailblazing dairy leaders were recognized for their outstanding contributions to the dairy processing industry during the WCMA Recognition Breakfast exclusively sponsored by dsm-firmenich at CheeseExpo on April 18, 2024.

Life Member Award

In 2024, Dave Buholzer will receive the Association’s highest honor: the WCMA Life Member Award. The award recognizes people who have played a significant role in the success of the Association through leadership, support, and service to the institution and its activities. WCMA has offered the Life Member Award since 1918; Buholzer will be its 94th recipient. 

Dave Buholzer, one of the senior managing partners at Klondike Cheese Company in Monroe, Wisconsin, has served WCMA in multiple roles in addition to earning Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker status, leading the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, and joining his brothers in service to their successful family business and the Monroe community. Dave served a full term of six years on the WCMA Board of Directors, including two years as Second Vice President and two years – 2019-2021 – as President of the Association. Dave devoted countless hours to leadership of the Association as events were postponed or reconfigured during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dave served on WCMA’s Executive Committee, Investment Committee, Technology Committee, and Recognition Committee, and as WCMA President, testified before state legislators and the news media in opposition to the sale of raw milk and in favor of Truth in Dairy Labeling. Since 2006, Dave has been integral to Championship Cheese Contest logistics, working side by side with fellow members of the WCMA Contest Committee to ensure Contest entries are shipped, stored, and delivered to the judges in peak condition. For years, Dave has offered Klondike Cheese’s facilities for the storage of award-winning entries for display at CheeseExpo and CheeseCon.

Luminary Award 

Created in 2021, the WCMA Luminary Award recognizes the contributions of individuals who championed new concepts, innovative ideas, and superior quality to grow dairy sales in the U.S. or around the world. In previous years, this award has been presented to leaders in sales and marketing. This year, for the first time, pioneers in the fields of research and development as well as quality and procurement were also considered for the honor. The 2024 recipients of the Luminary Award are Dave Leonhardi and Mike Pederson.

Following successful work in the specialty foods industry, Dave Leonhardi turned his talents to dairy and worked with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB; now Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin). He recently closed his career at Nasonville Dairy, where he was National Sales Manager, working directly with broker agents and distributors to achieve sales goals for company brands and private label products for national and international accounts.  

Leonhardi graduated with a Bachelor of Science in marketing and business management from Metro State University in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. A food industry veteran, he grew in roles during his 29 years in sales, manufacturing, and specialty food distribution.  

Leonhardi led education and trade event activities for WMMB for nearly 20 years after his career in specialty foods, working with a field staff of nine regional managers and a culinary training manager. He planned and executed WMMB’s participation in national and regional industry and consumer trade shows, as well as educational buying tours in Wisconsin’s dairy industry. He led the planning and execution of special events and meetings to promote Wisconsin cheese. 

Leonhardi served on the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association Board for 14 years. He served on the Board's Executive Committee and was Board Chair in 2015. He also served on the Products and Services and Dairy Steering Committees. Leonhardi was also a member of the American Cheese Society and the National Restaurant Association. 

Mike Pederson’s career in the dairy industry started in 1975 at Monroe Cheese Corporation in the packaging department. In 1991, he joined the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture as a cheese and butter grader, continuing in that role until his recent retirement in the summer of 2023. Pederson worked closely with Wisconsin cheese and butter manufacturers to ensure the quality of their products. During that time, he also played a key role in licensing new industry cheese and butter graders.  

Pederson has been a fixture in state, national, and international cheese contests. He has judged in WCMA’s Championship Cheese Contests 16 times since 1997, and in 2022 earned the Aschebrock Award for expertise in dairy product evaluation. He served as chief judge for the Wisconsin State Fair Cheese Contest for 10 years before relinquishing that role to Randy Swensen in 2023. He has also been a long-time judge in the Green County Fair contest.  

Pederson attended the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) Cheese Evaluation short course as a student in 1992. Ever since that time, he has presented twice yearly to Cheese Evaluation short course participants, concentrating on his great knowledge of Brick, Muenster, Havarti, and Swiss cheeses. Pederson has also been a key presenter at CDR’s buttermaking short courses. He worked with CDR staff to construct videos on the complex art of Swiss cheese grading and evaluation, as well as butter grading. These videos are part of the CDR video training library for use by industry and have also been used to help train new cheese graders and staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has also served as a product evaluator in the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program and will now lead that program in retirement. 

As he looks back at his career, Mike is most proud of his close involvement with the people of Wisconsin's cheese and butter industry, his work with the CDR short courses and Master Cheesemaker program, and competitions – all focused on helping the Wisconsin dairy industry improve.  

Cheese Industry Champion Award 

Ted Jacoby Jr. and Fritz Leeman will be recognized as WCMA's 2024 Cheese Industry Champions, awards that are given to industry leaders who, through their everyday business decisions, have created tremendous opportunity for others. 

Ted Jacoby Jr. is Chairman Emeritus of the Board of T.C. Jacoby & Company, one of North America’s premier dairy product trading companies. Jacoby served as the company’s President and CEO from 1986 through late 2015.  

After graduating from the University of Missouri and serving his country in the Marine Corps, Jacoby began his career in the dairy industry with Crystal Dairy Products in Watseka, Illinois, where he rose to General Manager of their Lebanon, Indiana plant. Jacoby joined the family business in 1966 and began trading fluid dairy products, expanding business from the Mississippi Valley to the East Coast. Jacoby was instrumental in computerizing the business in 1979 and expanded operations to Mexico in 1995. He worked with Select Milk Producers, Mike McCloskey, and Dave Hibbard to form North American Milk Products, which developed and began marketing ultra-filtered (UF) milk throughout the U.S. 

Ted Jacoby Jr.’s contribution to the cheese industry comes from two activities. First, Ted developed T.C. Jacoby & Company’s emphasis on balancing fresh milk supplies for cheese manufacturers across the U.S., a crucial function that moderates losses for farms and plants when cheese sales soften. The company’s detailed understanding of Federal Milk Marketing Orders and their ability to find new homes for milk creates flexibility for cheese manufacturers. Ted Jacoby Jr. led the application of this concept to cream, skim condensed, UF milk, and even cheese, and the firm’s ability to balance cheese converters is a large part of the business today. 

Second, as managing partner of North American Milk Products, Ted Jacoby Jr. was a leading advocate of the use of UF milk in cheesemaking and a driving force in convincing the Food & Drug Administration to allow its use in the late 1990s. 

Fritz Leeman, the retired majority owner of Brewster Cheese, has handed the reins to Katsy Flarida Leeman, his granddaughter, after 58 years leading the family business. Brewster Cheese produces about one-third of all the natural Swiss style cheese in the U.S. at its flagship plant in Brewster, Ohio and its facilities in Stockton, Illinois (acquired in 1998) and Rupert, Idaho (acquired in 2007). 

Fritz and his father, John, purchased Brewster Dairy in 1965 and produced a variety of cheeses for the dairy industry, some sold under their own label. Although the business flourished, the Leemans decided that concentrating solely on one product, Swiss cheese, would provide an opportunity for greater growth – and that strategy worked. Brewster is now the largest manufacturer of Swiss cheese in the nation. 

As he continued his quest to improve the business and its processing techniques, Fritz Leeman was among the first to implement new technologies and innovations that enhance products for customers. Under his leadership, for example, the company introduced a new, larger block of cheese that significantly reduced the amount of trim waste during packaging. Later, the addition of cheese production facilities in Illinois and Idaho gave Brewster Dairy increased capacity for making the products customers wanted.  

Distinguished Service Award 

The WCMA Distinguished Service Award, reserved for respected and highly valued supplier partners to the cheese manufacturing industry, is the only award that allows WCMA members to vote on prospective honorees. Gary Starkson and Reda Yacoub have been selected for the honor in 2024. 

After serving four years in the United States Air Force, Gary Starkson began making cheese in 1981, mentored by his father Marlowe Starkson, at Le Sueur Cheese Company, owned by Davisco Foods. There, working alongside fellow cheesemaker Roger Schroeder, Starkson learned the design and engineering aspects of cheesemaking equipment. Starkson moved to Jerome, Idaho in 1992 to help design, start-up and operate Davisco’s Jerome Cheese facility, one of the larger new plants at the time. 

After this successful launch, he joined Scherping Systems in 1995, where he brought his strong cheesemaking abilities and his knowledge of cheesemaking equipment to help build Scherping Systems into a technology leader in the dairy industry. In 2004, Starkson moved to Advanced Process Technologies (APT) in Cokato, Minnesota, and again participated in the growth making APT into a leading supplier of cheesemaking equipment. From cheese milk standardization systems, HTSTs, cheese vats, cheese belts, and cheese block formers, Starkson commissioned new equipment in over 40 cheese plants in North America and one in New Zealand. Starkson has received and shares seven cheesemaking patents, mostly in cheese vat and cheese belt designs. After 42 years in the dairy business, Starkson retired from APT in early 2023. 

Reda Yacoub’s distinguished career includes nearly 20 years with Ecolab, five years with Koch Membrane Systems, and 12 years with Hydrite Chemical Co. During his time with Ecolab and Koch, he was engaged with several countries in Europe, Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand. Yacoub is currently providing technical and commercial support for Solecta Inc. in business development, and at Kelley Supply as membrane programs manager. 

He is an active member of the American Dairy Products Institute’s Advisory Committee for Membrane Technology, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Food Science, Dairy and Chemistry from Cairo University.  

Yacoub has the unique ability to tie processing conditions together with equipment design and sanitation to optimize membrane system performance. He provides technical support, training, and troubleshooting to his team in the field, stating that "Doing what is best for the customer" is his motto. He has mentored a generation, both technically and commercially, to carry that forward. Yacoub's expertise in developing optimal cleaning protocols has been critical to the success of dairy processors who utilize new membrane filtration systems in their plants, helping ensure systems run effectively day in and day out.

Vanguard Award 

The WCMA Vanguard Award recognizes cheesemakers or cheese manufacturing employees whose work helped to blaze new trails in dairy operations. In 2024, this award will be given to Roger Schroeder and Richard Wold.  

Roger Schroeder, cheese production manager at Agropur’s Le Sueur, Minnesota plant, has the distinction of serving as the longest-tenured employee (50 years) within the company's U.S. operations before his retirement in 2023. His positive impacts will be seen for many years through the employees he has taught and the positive examples he has set. 

Today, there are few with a better knowledge of cheese production than Schroeder. His career offered a little bit of everything, from the heavy lifting of his early days to the weighty decisions required in leadership. With mentorship and effort, he reached the cheese production manager role in 1987. Schroeder’s knowledge guided the production process in Le Sueur, both under the Davisco leadership banner and then Agropur, and helped shepherd the business through the advancement of machinery and automation in cheesemaking. Schroeder is considered a key player in the advancement of hard Italian cheese production in the U.S. 

Richard Wold is widely known in the cheese industry as a consummate professional, and as a person with a ready smile and a helping hand. A career-long cheesemaker, Wold started on his path at Falls Dairy in Jim Falls, Wisconsin, in 1972 as a production worker. At the time, Falls Dairy was privately owned by Dairy Equipment Co. of Madison and was one of the largest cheesemaking sites in the United States, making barrel Cheddar cheese for Kraft. At Falls Dairy, Wold was involved in the initial testing of a pilot “OO” vat manufactured by Damrow Corp. This was done in conjunction with the Kraft technical group located in Green Bay and headed by Grant Krueger. Subsequently, Falls Dairy was one of the first U.S. cheese plants to install "OO" vats, replacing the open cheese vats of the day. 

In 1981, Wold was named Cheese Plant Supervisor for the Falls Dairy operation. He retained that position, later renamed Cheese Plant Superintendent, after Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI) purchased Falls Dairy in 1986, and until his retirement. In 1994, Wold oversaw the conversion of AMPI at Jim Falls from a barrel Cheddar plant to a 640-pound block plant. Shortly thereafter, cheese varieties diversified from Cheddar to include Colby and Monterey Jack, and ultimately to Pepper Jack and other spiced Jack cheeses. 

In 2000, Wold was named a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker in the sixth graduating class of the program. He retired in 2015 after 43 years of service. Wold continues to be active in the cheese community, serving on the WCMA Contest Committee and as a member of the “B Team” volunteers at WCMA Championship Cheese Contests.

Babcock Award 

The WCMA Babcock Award, named for Stephen Babcock, the famed agricultural chemist and University of Wisconsin professor, recognizes the contributions of those in education or affiliate organizations partnering with processors in the pursuit of dairy industry innovation and excellence, and will be given to Dr. Vikram Mistry and Dr. Andy Novakovic

Dr. Vikram Mistry taught and served at South Dakota State University (SDSU) for almost 37 years in various capacities. He joined the Dairy Science Department at SDSU as Assistant Professor in 1986. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1991 and to Professor in 1996. In 2002, Dr. Mistry was appointed department head of Dairy Science and was named David A. Thompson Endowed Department Head and Professor in 2018, which was the first endowed department head at SDSU. He remained in the position of department head until 2020 when he was appointed Interim Associate Dean and Director of Academic Programs of College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. In 2022 he became permanent Associate Dean and Director of Academic Programs. He retired from South Dakota State University in July 2023 and is currently Professor Emeritus. 

Dr. Mistry received his B.S. in Dairy Technology from Gujarat Agricultural University in Anand, India and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Food Science – Dairy Science Specialization from Cornell University, both under the mentorship of Professor Frank V. Kosikowski. He served as a Post Doctorate at Cornell University after his Ph.D. before joining SDSU. 

Dr. Mistry made substantial contributions to dairy science through research, teaching, and mentoring numerous undergraduate and graduate students. He has published over 60 peer reviewed papers in reputable journals, 140 abstracts of papers presented at scientific meetings, invited presentations and book chapters, coauthored one book (Cheese and Fermented Milk Foods), and two patents. 

As department head, he led efforts for the construction of the $9.5 million Davis Dairy Plant, increased undergraduate enrollment by 140 percent and scholarships by approximately 275 percent. He worked with key state and dairy industry leaders to facilitate growth of the dairy industry in South Dakota.  

Dr. Andy Novakovic is the E.V. Baker Professor of Agricultural Economics Emeritus at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. His interests and expertise are in understanding the economics of agricultural and food product markets, with a particular focus on dairy foods. 

In his work, Andy always strove to do research on things that were meaningful to people in the dairy industry and the federal and state agencies that are involved. Equally important was engaging with processors, farmers, retailers, elected officials, and regulatory agency staff to both share new knowledge and, importantly, to learn from them. Andy describes his focus as being on what happens to milk after it leaves the farm. This includes the economics of market coordination and pricing, the operation of food processing and marketing firms, transportation, international trade and markets, and the economic regulation of marketing and pricing activities. Andy is the author or coauthor of over 500 publications, including about 65 peer-reviewed articles, papers, and book chapters; 100 research bulletins, notes, and abstracts; over 300 extension bulletins and briefing papers; and other popular articles and papers. 

In the 1980s, Andy and his team received professional awards for their educational trainings on the Milk Diversion Program and the Dairy Termination Program. A decade later, Andy’s team was recognized for their work on Federal Order Reform, and again, his multi-university team was recognized for their training program in advance of the Margin Protection Program. 

In 2010, Andy was named Chair of the first Dairy Industry Advisory Committee by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Following his retirement in 2020, he has remained active in various professional activities including a prominent role in the International Dairy Federation (IDF), a science-based organization that represents the dairy sector in 45 countries and advocates for scientifically sound policies and practices. In 2023, Andy received the IDF Award, the organization’s highest award for career achievement. Since 2022 he has been employed by the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a part-time senior economist, where he is engaged in the current review of Federal Milk Marketing Orders, among other matters.