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A teachable moment

By Jim Kneiszel

As the lights come back up,
a gathering of about 20 area school administrators and school board members
quietly contemplate a 10-minute promotional video outlining the massive dairy
operation owned by John Pagel near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

After seeing many
professionals—agronomists, herd managers, and equipment operators—go about
their business on Wisconsin’s largest family-owned dairy farm, one school
official expresses deep regret that his high school’s agricultural education
program has eroded over the past decade. Learning that one in four jobs in his
Kewaunee County are in ag-related fields, he pledges to restore ag education.

That kind of awakening about
modern agriculture is just what Pagel is aiming for when he decided his
education efforts would match staggering milk output at his expanding farm.

At Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy,
many notable agribusiness stories are emerging, including a recent ramp up from
1,500 to 4,600 cows being milked three times daily on a 72-place rotating
parlor and a new $3.2 million methane gas digester that produces enough power
to light the nearby village of Kewaunee.

But to Pagel, those stories
don’t gain traction if his neighbors, the local community, and consumers don’t
fully understand their significance. To build public acceptance for his
large-scale farm and to promote agriculture careers, Pagel welcomes thousands
of visitors to take a peek inside his operation.

When he expanded his offices
recently, Pagel also added a multimedia education facility. The nearly
6,000-square-foot center includes areas to view and photograph the milking
parlor, a reception room with a scale model of the operation (shown above), a
60-seat multimedia theater, and a place to prepare and serve refreshments. He
also installed an elevator to the second-floor to accommodate elderly or
disabled visitors.

Pagel can’t point to a
monetary payback on his $100,000 investment in the education center and more
than $20,000 to produce the promotional film. But with the 4,000 to 6,000
visitors who came through in 2009 (his first year with the facility), Pagel
believes he’s spreading a lot of good will for farming.

“For too long, too many
people have been removed from agriculture,’’ Pagel says. “In general, farming
is still respected, but large-scale agriculture gets a bad rap. We’re trying to
get people out here to show them how the farm operates, how we take care of the
people and animals, and how big is not bad.’’

His other concern is
reversing misconceptions about farming as a career. Pagel contends that the
public doesn’t understand how technologically advanced farming has become and
that changes create opportunities for professional jobs, not just dirty jobs.

“Our resource pool continues
to shrink. We need to show nonfarm people and students in high school the
opportunities available in modern-day agriculture,’’ he says. Pagel says he
hasn’t had trouble attracting workers, “But we believe it’s coming. If we let
the ag departments die in the schools, it will be impossible to start them up

This could be a big issue
for Pagel, who employs about 100 people in many areas beyond the automated
milking parlor.

Going Big

Pagel’s parents, Carl and
Garnet Pagel, bought the farm in 1946 and started with eight cows. When Pagel
took over in 1980, he was milking 65 cows. Several expansions later, he was
milking 1,500 cows and poised to triple that number a few years ago. Wanting to
be a good neighbor and worrying that additional cows would lead to odor
complaints, he considered adding the anaerobic methane digester to process


A digester promised to reduce
concerns over odor and around-the-clock manure hauling, but a $3.2 million
electrical generation system had to make economic sense. 

The 800-kilowatt digester
went online in December 2008, and Pagel anticipates a payback of between seven
and 10 years by selling the electricity to the local power utility, Wisconsin
Public Service. Adding the cows will prove a more profitable investment, Pagel
says, but he believes he needed the digester before he could add to the herd.

“The main reason for the
digester was public acceptance,’’ says Pagel, who was named the 2003 Innovative
Dairy Farmer of the Year by the International Dairy Foods Association. “I know
the farm smelled with 1,500 cows. Adding more without the digester wasn’t the
fair and right thing to do. We’re so happy with the way things have turned

Odor complaints were minimal
after Pagel added the cows in 2009. And he has a novel way to limit complaints
in the future. Twice a year, he sends a farm newsletter to about 60 neighbors
within a 5-mile radius. He tells them the dates he’ll be running the trucks and
offers to suspend hauling or reroute trucks to accommodate their outdoor

The digester helps the farm
in other ways, too. Most of the dried solids resulting from the process are recycled
for excellent cow bedding. The dried by-product also makes quality organic
fertilizer, which is given away to area gardeners. Heat from the digester kills
the weed seeds and bacteria in the manure, leaving an almost odor-free product.

As if his own burgeoning
operation weren’t keeping him busy enough, Pagel was appointed by Wisconsin
Governor Jim Doyle as a consultant to design the new University of Wisconsin
Discovery Farm project. The $5.2 million, 525-cow dairy research farm was
completed in 2008 and cemented a statewide reputation for Pagel as a leading
light in dairying, says Laurie Fischer, executive director of the state’s Dairy
Business Association.

Offering Expertise

Fischer says Pagel was the
right agribusiness professional to lead the unusual public-private effort
because he demonstrates savvy business practices that allowed him to expand his
own operation while facing declining milk prices.

“He practices risk
management and understands what his costs of production are. He uses all the
tools available to him to manage his farm,’’ she says. “You have to get into
the numbers. A lot of farmers really like to do the work. But it’s really
important for them to be smart about their business planning. Without that, he
may have been able to build a new barn but not add the education components.’’

Fischer is especially
excited about the Pagel farm video. She would like to distribute it statewide
to raise awareness about farm technology. The video is slated for airing on
Public Broadcasting System stations in a five-state region, according to Pagel.
Fischer says Pagel has seen negative media coverage of big farms like his, and
he’s doing something to counter it.

“It’s caused him to say that
if we don’t stand up and tell people what we’re doing, they’re only going to
hear the negative,’’ she says. “But the rational majority, if you give them the
facts, will see that you can improve the environment and increase the amount of
food you can provide to the world.’’

Learn More

Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, LLC

920/388-3333 |

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