Wisconsin dairy industry stunned by death of John Pagel

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
John Pagel, Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation chairman, at The Cannery Public Market, his Green Bay restaurant.

KEWAUNEE – For the past week, family, friends and business associates have struggled to come to grips with the loss of Kewaunee County businessman John Pagel, his son-in-law and their pilot, following a plane crash last week in a farm field in rural Indiana.

Searching for ways to describe the dynamic dairyman, those who knew Pagel used the terms innovator, leader, creator, advocate, visionary, pioneer, genuine, progressive and forward thinker.

"Every time John walked into a room, the positive energy level went up," said his longtime friend and partner, Don Niles. "There have been only a few people who have shaped the world around them so significantly and John is the only one I know personally. Anybody else I would have read about in books—that's just the impact he's had."

The Pagel family receives recognition during the 2017 Farm Technology Days as one of the Landmark Farms in Kewaunee County. Front row (from left)  Brooke Witcpalek, Kiley Pagel, Braelyn Witcpalek, and Brex Witcpalek. Back row (from left) JJ Pagel, Chase Pagel, John Pagel, Jamie Witcpalek, Steve Witcpalek, and NAPA rep Logan Bosar from Ball Auto and Truck Parts.

Pagel and his family operate Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy, an 8,500 acre dairy farm located seven miles west of Lake Michigan that's home to more than 5,300 cows and employs over 100 workers. And that's just the tip of Pagel's entrepreneurial endeavors. The dairyman also owns the Cannery Public Market in downtown Green Bay and runs Ron's Wisconsin Cheese in Luxemburg.

Pagel, 58, son-in-law Steve Witcpalek, 39, and pilot Nathan Saari, 35, died when the Cessna 441 Conquest II they were in crashed at about 7:40 p.m., on Feb. 22, in a farm field near Rossville, about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis. 

The twin turboprop business aircraft was owned by Ponderosa Aviation. The plane had flown from Green Bay to Indianapolis on the morning of Feb. 20 and was returning to Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport, according to online flight records.

Nathan Saari was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed in rural Indiana on Feb. 22.

Saari was certified as a flight instructor and commercial pilot and served as a co-pilot and pilot-in-command for various single-engine, twin-engine and small frame jets. According to his family, Saari had taken on the role as the corporate pilot for Pagel's Ponderosa Farms just this year.

"At this time in his life and career (Nathan) considered it a dream job, liking everyone he met and embracing this new phase of his life wholeheartedly," according to his obituary.

Saari, a former Michigan resident, had been living in Bellevue, WI, for the past two months.

RELATED: Visitation, funeral details for Indiana plane crash victims John Pagel, Steve Witcpalek

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are still in the process of investigating the cause of the crash.

'A pioneer' 

Don Niles and John Pagel first met in the late 1980s as a young veterinarian starting his practice and a young dairy farmer—the youngest of seven children—who had finished the Short Course in Madison and was taking over his father's farm.

"We were both at a point in our young professional lives that we loved what we were doing. But at the same time, we were so intrigued with all the potential and opportunities and thrilling changes that were coming to modern agriculture."

Niles said the pair often traveled to meetings across the U.S. where they would observe innovative practices being done in the dairy world that could be incorporated back home. Niles and Pagel also formed a partnership, Dairy Dreams, a dairy farm in northern Kewaunee County. 

“John Pagel was the best friend I have had my whole life,” Niles said. "He was a fabulous business partner, great mentor and he personified the passion for the dairy business, unlike anyone I ever met.” 

The Pagel family founded its dairy farm 72 years ago with fewer than 10 cows, a handful of hogs and some chickens.  

Now, it has a 72-stall rotary milking parlor that produces about 500,000 pounds of milk a day. 

Pagel’s four children, Jamie (Steve's wife), JJ, Bryan and Dustin, all returned to the family business that now employs more than 100 people.

"He loved farming side by side with his children and beamed with pride over them and his grandchildren. In them, he saw a bright and secure future and a lasting family legacy," said the family in John's obituary.

Steve Witcpalek

Witcpalek married Pagel's oldest child, Jamie, in 2002 and served as the farm's Operations Manager. The couple have three young children.

"Steve touched so many with his kindness, infectious smiles, jokes, laughter and humorous personality...he lived life to the fullest," the family wrote in his obituary.

Commitment to ag, others

Pagel also was a founder and the president of Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. The Green Bay-based organization is the nation’s sixth-largest dairy cooperative, with nearly 800 members in nine states. 

In a statement, the co-op called Pagel "a champion for the dairy community who worked tirelessly to put farmers in a position to succeed."

In 2017, that group, then called Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, helped dozens of dairy farmers find a home for their milk after their buyer, Grassland Dairy Products, dropped them in a trade dispute with Canada. John and his partner, Julie Veldhuis, drove from Green Bay to attend a meeting at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Madison.

"John was a family farmer at the core and cared deeply for his fellow farmers big or small," said Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board CEO Chad Vincent. "He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help find a home for all of the displaced farmers' milk. He may have had a big farm, but in his heart he was a dairy farmer who cared about his cows and his family. When he saw others in need, he was always ready to help."

Flag is flown at half mast on Friday morning, Feb. 23, 2018, at Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy, N4893 County C, Kewaunee. CEO John Pagel and his son-in-law Steve Witcpalek were among those killed Thursday night after a Green Bay-bound plane crashed in Indiana. Tina M. Gohr/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Pagel also worked on the national level, representing the interests of Edge members and discussing the impact of federal farm legislation on Wisconsin agriculture with Congress. 

Aerica Bjurstrom, UW-Extension agriculture agent in Kewaunee County said Pagel was a true innovator and leader in the dairy industry.

"We would be hard-pressed to find a dairy farmer in Wisconsin who has not been impacted in some way by John's contributions to the industry," Bjurstrom said.

Some of the dairy practices common among dairy farmers now that were started by Pagel include the rotary milking parlor and wind tunnel ventilation systems, which improve the comfort of the cows. 

“John felt very strongly that anybody with responsibility for cows on a farm had to make sure the cows have a life worth living,” Niles said. 

The high road

However, Pagel and the family’s dairy operation also have been at the forefront of controversy in Kewaunee County over large-scale farming operations and their impact on local groundwater. 

After years of debate, he and a group of farmers in 2016 acknowledged a connection between their businesses and local well contamination, and announced steps to adopt new technologies to reduce groundwater pollution while also maintaining the size of their operations. 

"We're here to be responsible for our portion of the problem," Pagel said at the time.

In the face of criticism, Niles said his friend always chose the high road.

"He focused on the positive end of the discussion and avoided the finger pointing and name-calling that had become too common," Niles said.

In this 2014 photo, John Pagel, of Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy, and members of his family during Thursday’s press conference about the new public market retail concept that is coming to the historic Broadway District in downtown Green Bay.

When The Cannery Public Market project in downtown drew criticism on Facebook back in 2015 over Pagel's role as the owner of a CAFO farm, he acknowledged that there may be some resistance from the public due to their environmental or animal welfare concerns related to large farms.

Instead of being daunted, Pagel looked at is as an opportunity to educate the public.

"We are going to be able to educate people on what gets fed to our animals and how they are cared for. They are going to know where our products come from," he said at the time.

The Pagel family has always been transparent about their farm operation and have welcomed visitors from near and far to tour the facility. From young school children to students attending Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Pagel always had time to share his knowledge and love of the dairy industry.

2017 Farm Technology Days host Randy Ebert (right) listens to John Pagel (left) before giving a tour at Ebert Enterprises on Media Day.

"John was an advocate of fostering the next agriculture generation. From hosting the Kewaunee County Ag Career Days to hosting thousands of visitors each year, he wanted to share his agriculture story," Bjurstrom said. "I know his family, friends and employees will work tirelessly to honor his passion for the industry and continue his legacy."

The family also hosted the Kewaunee County Breakfast on the Farm in 2016 and the following year, John stepped up to help his beloved county host the Wisconsin Farm Technology Days Show on his neighbor, Randy Ebert's farm.

Pagel served as the county Executive Committee liaison to the Fund Development Committee.

"John had a habit of surrounding himself with people that know how to get things done with effectiveness and style," said FTD General Manager Matthew Glewen. "He was fiercely proud of Kewaunee County agriculture and the people that are part of it."

John Pagel (third from right) served as a liaison to the Fund Raising committee during the 2017 Farm Technology Days show in Kewaunee County.

Pagel also believed in community service, representing the Town of Casco on the Kewaunee County Board and holding a seat on the local school board.

Moving forward

Whether serving on local government or school board, or statewide ag organizations, Pagel was a "get it done" type of leader who recognized when action was needed and was often the first one to step up, Vincent said.

"He was a visionary leader for the dairy industry in Wisconsin who never saw an issue that couldn't be met by people coming together and working through the challenges in a cooperative manner," Vincent said. "Perhaps his greatest gift was that he was capable of inspiring people around him to do more than even they thought they could do."

Pagel's sense of humor also was an asset, Vincent said.

"He was a lot of fun to work with. Humor was as much a tool as was the strategy that he brought to the table," Vincent said.

Niles believes that Pagel's legacy will continue due to the energy, passion and drive that he inspired in those around him.

"It will continue on full speed ahead, although we all realize it won't be quite as much fun without him," he said.

Jeff Bollier and Liz Welter of USA TODAY NETWORK - Wisconsin and Carol Spaeth-Bauer of Wisconsin State Farmer contributed to this report.