Six young farmers vie for Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer award

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Outstanding Young Farmer award

Six exceptional young farmers will participate in the 66th Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer (OYF) Awards weekend Jan. 24-26, in Chippewa Falls, at the Avalon Hotel & Conference Center.

The OYF award is based on 50 percent progress in ag career, 25 percent soil and water conservation and 25 percent contributions to community, state or nation.

This year's finalists include: Philip and Laura Finger, of Oconto; Kelly and Rachel Fruit, of Viola; Jeremy and Heather Natzke, of Greenleaf; John (JJ) and Chase Pagel, of Kewaunee; Laura and Tyler Raatz, of Cecil; and Katy Schultz, of Fox Lake.


Phil Finger, along with his children, Alisa, 9, PJ, 10, Alivia, 6, Alana, 18 and wife, Laura Finger.

Phil Finger is a fifth generation farmer on the farm that has been in his family since 1872. He and his wife Laura both have bachelor's degrees in dairy science and milk just over 500 cows. The last couple of years they hit a goal of shipping 7 pounds of components a day and are aiming for their next goal of 7.5 pounds of components. 

Phil's motto is "do the right things, get the right results." 

"If we have to cover a pile at midnight because that's when we got done making hay, then we cover it at midnight," said Phil. 

He and Laura work together as a team on the farm. Her passion is calves, his is genetics. When their four children were small, one would get up early and go out while the other would take care of the kids, then they would switch. 

"I wanted a partner to farm with me and that is probably our biggest strength," said Phil. "We work together as a team. My weaknesses are her strengths and her weaknesses are my strengths. We compliment each other very well."

Along with improving milk components, they have a nutrient management plan, work closely with their agronomist and watch erosion on fields, and plant cover crops, especially rye, on anything with a slope of 8% or more.  The last couple of years they've been doing a little no till and have been pleasantly surprised by the results. 

Somehow, the duo finds time to coach "any sport my kids are in" (Phil), volunteer as a 4-H leader for the past 10 years, teach swim lessons, volunteer for school lunch on Mondays (Laura), take part in county fairs and give farm tours. Phil is on the board of the Marinette County Holstein Association and they help with the county breakfast on the farm.  

Additionally, they employ eight to nine high school students at night, along with their normal full-time crew during the day.

"Sometimes it's stressful because they’re high schoolers, but if we can promote hard work and agriculture to some kids, it should be worth it," said Phil. "They learn a lot. You teach them responsibility with the animals."

Phil and Laura couldn't believe it when they were nominated for the Outstanding Young Farmer award and thought it was "really cool to be nominated." 

"It was definitely not expected," Phil said. 


Kelly and Rachel Fruit with Emerson, 2, Finley, 4, and Scarlet, 4 months.

When Kelly Fruit graduated from high school, he didn't want to farm. Having grown up on a farm, he knew what the hours were and wanted his weekends off. He and his siblings were involved in the process of building bunkers and sheds on their farm. He knew the hard work farming required. 

"I really didn't want to commit to that kind of schedule," said Kelly. "I also wanted to go out and have some different experiences." 

After attending Southwest Technical College in Fennimore for masonry and bricklaying, he laid brick for about a year, spending a couple hours a day commuting.Then a motorcycle accident changed the trajectory of his life. He was laid up for about six weeks and as he recovered, he couldn't work that much in the beginning.

"It gave me a chance to work a couple of hours and be done," Kelly said. "It was rehab, and it gave me a chance to get out of the house for a few minutes with something to do and that was an important part of it too. I enjoyed that."

His wife Rachel didn't grow up on a farm, but spent time on her grandparent's farm while her dad helped her ailing grandfather with the farm. 

Kelly's parents started with about 70 dairy cows which has expanded to 240. Kelly takes pride in working with the cows having achieved a somatic cell count under 100,000. 

"We worked hard every single day for a number of years to make that happen. It was just a matter of sticking with it," Kelly said. "You’ve got vaccinations and things you add to your milking protocol, keeping cows clean, keeping them healthy."

Kelly is constantly working to improve the land on his farm. Contour stripping and cover crops control erosion and help build organic matter in the soil.

Over the years, he has helped his dad build everything on the farm, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who built the house Kelly and Rachel live in as well as the barn. Kelly has helped build three to four sheds on the farm, a process that "can be pretty taxing, especially if harvesting."

"But when you're finished and the animals are in it, it's pretty cool to take a step back and realize what you've done," said Kelly. "That part I enjoy."


Heather and Jeremy Natzke are pictured with their daughters, from left, Cait, Caylee and Cora.

Jeremy Natzke started farming in 2001 after graduating from UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. 

He, along with his dad, Dan, his cousin, Paul Natzke and sister Jenna Nonemacher, own and operate 3,150 acres of farmland which consists of corn for silage, hay for haylage, wheat and soybeans. They milk 1,900 cows and have 250 dry cows. Their calves are raised in Kansas until they are 60 days bred, and then return to the milking herd.

"My passion is managing people who manage the animals," said Jeremy. "Connecting people who share the same interests and have the same goals is what my mission is. I enjoy the challenge. No two days are ever the same." 

Jeremy said they've had good success planting triticale as a cover crop, "especially when forages are tight," for the past seven to eight years. They've increased the acreage over the years and are up to about 600 acres of triticale and 200 - 300 in wheat. 

Currently, Jeremy is involved with the Dairy Business Association and the American Dairy Coalition. He also served on the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) board of directors from 2014-2017.   

Jeremy and his wife Heather have three girls, Cora, 9, Cait, 7, and Caylee, 4. Along with being an elder at Zion Lutheran Church of Wayside, Jeremy finds time to coach baseball, soccer and basketball. 

It was very rewarding to be nominated for the Outstanding Young Farmer award, Jeremy said. 

"I feel I was nominated for the award because of the hard work, dedication and commitment I have shown toward my business," Jeremy added. "It takes a high level of sacrifice to run a dairy."


Chase and JJ Pagel with their children, from left, Jaylyn, 10, Jase, 6, Jaxen, 9, and Kiley, 17.

JJ Pagel knew at a young that he wanted to be a dairy farmer and started early on cleaning and scraping bunks, feeding calves, picking stones. When he was tall enough he started milking cows in the double 8 parlor at the family farm, driving tractor and hauling wagons.

He quickly fell in love with the field work, working in dirt and on equipment. In 2000, he took the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course. After finishing the course in 2002, he started working at Dairy Dreams, LLC as an assistant herdsman and worked his way up to feed manager.  

JJ worked outside of the family business for four years working at Kewaunee Fabrications during the day and helping on the family farm at night. But in 2008, his dad, John Pagel, bought a farm in Coleman and asked JJ to return to the family business to run the farm.

Moving to Coleman in February 2008, JJ and his wife Chase, worked tirelessly to clean and repair the empty barn, getting it in shape to house heifers from their family farm. Eventually, they did all the breeding, as well as some embryo work. 

He shifted gears in 2013 when his dad asked him to work a few days at the family farm with their herdsman, focusing on animal health and working with the reproduction team. JJ helped set up protocols, SOPS and processes and procedures. In 2014, he and his family moved back to Kewaunee where he continued to assist on the family farm in all facets including dairy operations, the calf ranch, field operations and maintenance, while transitioning his duties at Coleman over to a new manager. 

He started back at Dairy Dreams, LLC in 2016, with the intent of taking over the operations upon Dr. Don Niles retirement, which was set to happen in 2018. 

"My life would forever change on Feb. 22, 2018 when my dad, brother-in-law Steve Witcpalek, and our pilot Nathan Saari were tragically killed in a plane crash. Our world was turned upside down," JJ said. " I’m so thankful for the time I got to spend with my dad. Working side-by-side watching and learning from him."

JJ was given opportunities working in critical management roles, working side-by-side with managers and employees, building great relationships. 

"In other types of business, you wouldn’t have been given this opportunity," said JJ. "I now live in the same farmhouse as my grandparents and Dad and am the CEO of the Pagel Family Businesses. Following in my Dad’s footsteps, work ethic, and values helped shape me into who I am today."

For JJ, growing up on the farm the focus was always family and farming and treating everyone he worked with like family. Even though the family business expanded and evolved, the majority of employees are friends he grew up with, people he milked with in the parlor as a kid.  

"They are my neighbors, my friends, confidants and truly they all feel like family. Employees that come work for us tell their family and friends and bring them in as we need more people," JJ said. "We are all tied together in some way, shape or form.  It is truly what makes the Pagel Family Businesses such a special place to work."

Following in his dad's footsteps, JJ's goal is to educate people about agriculture. In doing so, their farm is host to 10,000 visitors annually, showing people where their food comes from, how farmers are good stewards of the land and all the rewarding careers available in agriculture. 

JJ also continues his Dad's goal of being sustainable and efficient. "It is our job to take care of things and leave this world a better place for the next generations to come," he said. 

To be considered for the Outstanding Young Farmer award is an honor to JJ. 

"I'm very humbled to be nominated in such a strong agricultural community," he said. "There are men and women working tirelessly on farms all across state. This is very special for myself, my family, and our team. None of this would be possible without the coaching, guidance, and support of all of them." 


Laura and Tyler Raatz

Laura Raatz was farming since she was an infant carried in a backpack carrier by her parents. But as she grew and took on chores around the farm, she came to love the animals and the outdoors and knew farming was in her blood. 

She started with smaller jobs that became harder as she grew older.

"My dad would give me some of the worst jobs, just to show me farming isn't easy and you have to work hard to be successful," Laura said.

She went off to play college basketball but came back in 2012 to take on the role of calf manager, a passion that started early on.

"I had a love for the baby calves and being able to watch them grow and mature into healthy, high producing cows. Three years later I wanted to be able to do more for our farm in the herd area, so I also took on the role of herd manager," said Laura. 

Her husband Tyler, on the other hand, grew up in the city. He started helping on the farm when the two started dating and after they were engaged, Tyler began to have a lot of interest in the farm and started working in different areas trying to find his passion. He fell in love with feeding cows and took on the feeding program at the farm, taking it to "a whole new level," Laura said. 

After a few years he expanded his role on the farm beyond feed manager to include managing the parlor and the employees. 

"He has a totally different knowledge and insight of farming than when he first started," said Laura. "But because of Tyler's non-farm background he brings a different perspective to our farm and how we can do a better job in all areas."

Laura is passionate about the dairy industry and feeding the world and about letting people hear and see the real story of what goes on in the life of a farmer.

"I want the world to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and the struggles farmers go through to make sure there’s food on their tables. I started to become a voice for agriculture," she said. "We created a farm Facebook page where I take photos and videos, and post information regularly to show people what happens on our farm. Our farm motto is, “People. Animals. Environment.” We want to do a better job of living out our motto every day and allowing people to see how we fulfill it."

Laura and Tyler know they are "running against some incredible producers who we not only respect but admire for their hard work and dedication to the dairy industry," she said. "I feel blessed to be nominated for this award, but I am even more grateful to walk alongside such successful people in the dairy industry."


Katy Schultz, right, with her siblings Kari and Nick.

Growing up on a dairy and cash crop farm, Katy Schultz got lots of hands on experience learning about the daily tasks of farming. Her parents Keven and Cheryl Schultz said she and her siblings, Kari and Nick, could come back to the farm after getting an education and working for someone else. But it was during a semester in college studying abroad when she was knew she would return to the farm. Fully immersed in the culture of the Netherlands and nine other countries in Europe, Katy toured, and networked while sharing her family’s story and her passion for America’s Dairyland.

After graduating from UW-Platteville in 2007 with an Agriculture Business degree, Katy began working full-time for Agri-Nutrition Consulting in DeForest, doing marketing, communications, and human resource coordinating. During that five-year stint, she worked mornings, nights, and half days at the farm learning herd management.

In 2008, Katy, Kari and Nick formed Tri-Fecta Farms Inc. as their parents started the transition of the family farm over to the next generation. In 2012, Katy returned to the farm full-time.

"Each of us siblings has an area of expertise on the farm. I manage all things 'with a heartbeat', so the all livestock, employees, and community outreach are my areas of responsibility," she said. "Nick is in charge of crops, fertilizers, grain marketing, and machinery while Kari is the chief operating financial officer."

They milk 400 cows and run around 2,000 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, peas, rye, and alfalfa on their farm. 

"Agriculture outreach and education are a passion of mine," said Katy. "I have been able to work locally and globally to help educate and engage diverse populations about agriculture."

At home, along with her 6-year-old daughter Londyn, she has welcomed school groups to the farm and done field demonstrations with them. Statewide, Katy served on the Board of Directors for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW). In her role, she helped bridge the gap between rural America and related news materials.

"I’ve been able to speak with groups who have a wide variety of agriculture knowledge — some with very little to others who are very well-versed, looking to partner and be visionaries for the industry," Katy said. 

She spent several months abroad networking throughout several countries. For four weeks back in 2011, Katy traveled throughout Uruguay with a team of agribusiness professionals helping to educate and share about America’s diverse agriculture. During 2017 and 2018, she attended the European Dairy Farmers Congress in the Czech Republic and Spain.

"I traveled to many farms, met with industry professionals, and truly connected agriculture’s story worldwide," said Katy. "Since traveling aboard, our farm has welcomed international guests."

Being nominated as an Outstanding Young Farmer has been humbling for Katy. 

"God has richly blessed my life and this truly has been another blessing in my life," Katy said. "I am beyond honored to be recognized with such a group of incredible, driven, and passionate individuals."


The Awards Weekend in Chippewa County allows candidates to network on farm and family issues during the two-day event as well as participate in an Ag Forum/Workshop.

The group will also tour Seibel’s Organic Dairy, Bloomer (2019 WI OYF State Winner’s Farm), and Leinenkugel’s Brewery, Chippewa Falls.

The 2020 state OYF winner will be named Saturday evening at the finale banquet. Also recognized will be two runners-up and a “Speak up for Ag” winner. The state winner will be nominated to attend the February 2021 national OYF Awards Congress, which will be held in Green Bay, WI.

The 2019 state winners, Adam and Chrissy Seibel, Bloomer, were just named to the top 10 National finalists. The Seibels will attend national OYF Awards Congress held February 6-9, 2020, in Connecticut.

Now in its 66th year, Wisconsin OYF has had 18 national winners. 

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at