SMALL TOWNS: Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy overcomes family tragedy to carry on a legacy

From success to unspeakable tragedy, a wide spectrum of emotions
Updated: Jun. 29, 2023 at 6:30 PM CDT
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KEWAUNEE COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - To mark June Dairy Month, our weekly Small Towns series has focused on farming. We conclude this month-long series with the story of Wisconsin’s largest, private, family-owned dairy farm, that in recent years had to overcome unspeakable tragedy.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee County, where an amazing legacy carries on.

In 1946, after returning from World War II, Carl Pagel purchased an 80-acre farm with just a few cows outside Kewaunee.

Over the next three decades, the farm would grow to 320 acres and 65 milking cows and acquire a name, Pagel’s Ponderosa, inspired by Carl’s favorite TV show, “Bonanza.”

In 1978, Carl’s youngest son, John, took over the farm, and it wasn’t long before his kids were busy with chores alongside their father.

“As soon as I could reach up high enough that I could milk a cow is basically when my life started in dairy farming,” recalls J.J. Pagel, Pagel Family Businesses president and CEO.

“Chasing around dad, milking cows, scraping cow manure, pushing up feed,” remembers brother Bryan Pagel, Pagel Family Businesses head of operations.

Along with a strong work ethic, John’s children also soon learned their dad had an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

“He was always trying to figure out how he could make things better, and then what opportunities were out there, what other things can we do to educate people, what can we do to bring more people back to the farm, keep people interested in agriculture,” says J.J.

By the late 1990′s and into the 2000′s, the Ponderosa was expanding rapidly with a state-of-the-art rotary milking parlor, nutrient recovery system, flash cooling system, and eventually 5,000 cows milked every day.

That’s also when the oldest daughter, Jamie, always a little hesitant to be a farmer, joined the family operation.

“It just evolved, because then we bought another business and then we bought another, and then things grew, and dad is like, ‘You know what, we can grow this business and provide for your families.’ And I still wasn’t staying forever, and then I was there by his side through it all and we grew together, we had ups and downs, and we have really great employees, and that’s why we’re here today, really because dad did a great job building a legacy for our families, and two, our employees have been phenomenal,” says Jamie Witcpalek, Pagel Family Businesses director of culture.

In 2008, Jamie’s husband, Steve Witcpalek, came on board.

“Dad always loved Steve’s work ethic, and he just always was trying to get Steve to come to the farm. I’m like, I don’t know if that’s a good idea, we’ll be working together, living together, so we didn’t know if that was the best thing for him, and then when he did come it was fantastic because he was a great leader. He’s very skilled, he’s very smart, very educated,” says Jamie.

After acquiring a cheese company and launching their own product line, the Pagel family was truly living the dream and sharing their love for farming by offering daily tours, hosting field trips and a summer boot camp designed to show youth careers in agriculture.

But then came February 22, 2018.

“Oh, it was terrible,” says Jamie, holding back tears.

John and Steve were at a dairy conference in Indiana and set to fly back that evening.

“That day Steve and I had talked and laughed and texted back and forth, and him and dad were having a great time down there, he was talking about how good it was, and then he sent me a message, texted me, ‘Love you and the kids, see you soon,’ and I was at one of my daughter’s events, and I knew we weren’t supposed to have our cell phones, so I hurried up and texted ‘I love you back,’ and then obviously they didn’t make it home,” says Jamie.

Their twin-engine Cessna crashed 20 minutes after takeoff, killing John, Steve, and the pilot.

Federal investigators could never pinpoint the cause.

“The thing I remember the most is when I was with the sheriff and he told me I had to go in and give the information to my sister and her kids that they did not make it,” recalls Bryan.

“I was very close to dad, I was like his righthand woman, so then my world got turned upside down at home, but it got turned upside down here too,” explains Jamie.

“I’ll never forget. I called Bryan, I said, ‘Bryan, we’ve got a lot of phone calls to make. We’ve got to let our people know what’s going on,’ and so we did that that night,” says J.J.

Shocked and grieving, Jamie, J.J. and Bryan asked their managers and employees to stick together with them, vowing to live by the values their dad instilled in them.

“The tragedy happened, but everybody pulled together, and we were going to rise above it. We’re going to be OK. We’re going to make sure we’re OK. And as the years have transitioned, we figured out what our roles are going to be because if something happened to dad, his shoes were way too big for one of us to fill,” says Jamie.

“The way I feel about it is, I think dad grew us all in different areas, that he knew if something would ever happen that this place would remain successful,” adds Bryan.

In the five-plus years since the plane crash, John Pagel’s legacy has continued to grow, thanks to a daughter’s and two sons’ love for him and the Ponderosa.

“There’s still a lot of days that are really hard, but we’re making it, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to be OK,” says Jamie with a smile.