2017 Top Producer of the Year Finalist: John Pagel

The CEO of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, Wis., also owns three cheese manufacturing facilities and a farm-to-fork restaurant in Green Bay.

John Pagel has a lot on his plate. He serves as CEO of Wisconsin’s largest single-family-owned dairy operation; farms several thousand acres; owns three cheese manufacturing facilities; and, as of August 2015, is a restaurateur in Green Bay, where he owns a farm-to-fork restaurant and food market.

Although his schedule stays packed, he wouldn’t have it any other way. John is a hardworking and acute businessman who enjoys a challenge. His operation’s success comes from a strong foundation.

Seventy years ago, John’s parents, Carl and Garnet, purchased a farm and founded Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy. When John took it over in 1980, the dairy included 65 cows and 380 acres.

“There were a few moments in my life where I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be a farmer,” John says. “I graduated high school. I worked off the farm for a year, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I came back to the farm, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Fast forward to today, and the thriving operation includes 5,300 dairy cows, 8,500 crop acres and a digester that produces electricity for the entire town of Kewaunee, John’s hometown. It also employs 120 full-time and 10 part-time team members, making him one of the largest employers in the region.

John’s team includes his four children. His daughter, Jamie, manages the office and heads up the human resources department, while son John works on the production side with the milking herd and young stock. Son Bryan manages the digester and bedding dryer plus wholesale meat sales, and son Dustin works with the field crews and is in charge of nutrient distribution.

Three years ago, John hired a professional coach to zero in on family and employee relations.  The resulting employee training program is called “CARS,” an acronym for communication, accountability, respect and sustainability.

This program helps employees understand the farm’s core values and what is expected of them. In addition to this structured employee development program, a counselor visits regularly to lead team-building exercises and meet with employees.

To diversify the business and go full-circle with their farm, John and his team opened a market and farm-to-fork restaurant, called Cannery Public Market, in nearby Green Bay. They engaged a consultant to define their target market and a design team to remodel a former canning building originally constructed in 1917. They took down four barns for lumber to furnish the space and display farm artifacts.

“It’s a huge adjustment, but I believe it will make us better farmers,” John says, “going all the way from one cycle to the other, learning what the consumer wants and why they want it, and to be able to bring that back to the farm and grow what the consumer needs and wants.”

John is dedicated to his community, holds numerous leadership positions in farming organization and serves on the local school board. He also regularly opens up the farm to host local grade school students so they can learn about the many career offerings in agriculture.

One of John’s references described him as having ingenuity, dedication and boundless enthusiasm.

“It’s amazing that I get to work with my children, and the grandkids get off the school bus here every day,” John says. “I’m very blessed in that way.”

Watch Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy’s story on AgDay above.

-Sara Schafer