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Dairy Producers Embrace Visits With the Public
At Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, it’s not uncommon to find a group of schoolchildren moving in and out of the barns. In fact, it’s readily encouraged by the family members who operate the 5,200-cow dairy in Kewaunee, Wisconsin. “My brother John (Pagel) believed in the value of transparency and using every opportunity to educate the public about where our food comes from,” says Mona Pagel, staff support specialist at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy.
It’s not just about education. “Every opportunity we have to interact with the public is a way for us to strengthen our relationships,” she says.
Transparency is a core value and one that is carried on by the next generation of the family: Jamie (Pagel) Witcpalek, JJ Pagel, and Bryan Pagel. Tragically, John was killed in an airplane crash in February 2018.
With today’s consumers even more disconnected from production agriculture, combined with an increasing demand from consumers to know where their food comes from, dairy producers are embracing the chance to increase interactions with the end user.
“It’s more than being transparent,” says Shelly Mayer, executive director of the Professional Dairy Producers and a dairy producer from Slinger, Wisconsin. “It’s a chance for producers to interact with consumers and not only tell our story but also listen to their questions and concerns and answer in an open dialogue.”
In today’s internet-fueled social media society, one photo, comment, or video can spread like wildfire regardless of whether it’s valid.
“Skepticism is, unfortunately, the new normal, and that can fuel misinformation, especially about agriculture,” says Roxi Beck, consumer engagement director for the Center for Food Integrity.
Rather than waiting for others to tell their story, the Pagels have strong community involvement, and they view themselves as educators. An interactive website allows the public to learn more about their operation and to contact the farm directly. On-farm tours can be scheduled in advance.
In addition, employees take pride in sharing the farm’s story. “Our tours are a team effort,” Mona Pagel says. “We all have received training through the Professional Dairy Producers on how to be better communicators.”
On-site cheesemaking lets customers watch curds, whips, string, and other artesian cheeses being made. Opening its doors also helps the dairy go beyond sharing the latest agricultural practices.
“It allows us to show the love we have for our animals, employees, and the environment,” says Jamie Witcpalek, chief operating officer at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy. “We not only have locals touring our farm, but also have hosted many international visitors. We have a map on the wall where people can peg where they are from.”
The dairy holds an annual boot camp where up to 30 eighth-grade students spend a week on the farm. At the end of the week, they give a presentation on what they’ve learned.
“Some students are from other farms, but most have never been on a farm before,” Witcpalek says. “We provide key insights on farm life and information on the career options that are available in agriculture.”
When Koepke Farms produced its first batch of LaBelle cheese, it made consumer interaction a key component of sales. The fifth-generation dairy near Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, has been a fixture on the landscape since 1875.
In Waukesha County, where the farm is located, people have replaced cows. Once known as a dairy-production mecca, it is now the third most populous county in the state.
“We are on the urban fringe,” says Kim Koepke, who farms with her husband, John. John’s uncle, Dave, helps manage the herd, and father-in-law Jim is still involved in the operation. Developing their own cheese brand started as a way to diversify the 350-cow dairy. Over the past 10 years, the farm’s cheese business has grown into a successful endeavor that finds the LaBelle cheeses in more than 30 grocery stores in southeast Wisconsin, as well as a continued presence at area farmers markets.
growing the brand
Local tastings held at stores and an active presence at farm markets are where the one-on-one interaction with customers helps grow the family brand.
“By making a branded product, we work to make a connection with our customers. We are a visible, integral part of the community,” Koepke says. “We find that customers like to know where their food comes from, and they make a personal connection.”
This is especially true at farmers markets, where Koepke says customers often ask about the farm, including how they care for the cows and the land. “We welcome those questions,” she says. “It gives us the chance to tell our story and answer questions about what happens on a dairy farm.”
The Koepkes often field questions about on-farm visits. “We give them a card and tell them to contact us to arrange a tour of our farm,” Koepke says. “Our employees are an integral part of our day-to-day operations, and they are invaluable during tours, because they provide a real-life view of a modern dairy.”
While not everyone calls to set up a tour, the openness displayed during these customer interactions is invaluable.
“There is no better way to connect to a customer than one-on-one,” she says. “We answer every question in an up-front, honest way.”
That kind of open dialogue is imperative.
“There’s a big knowledge gap when it comes to dairy production,” Koepke says. “We have to be willing to share our knowledge and answer questions. It’s important now more than ever.”