A Kewaunee farmer and business owner who was an icon in the state dairy industry was among three people killed when a small business jet crashed in a field Thursday night near Rossville, Indiana.
John Pagel, 58, owner and chief executive officer of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee and two other businesses in northeastern Wisconsin, was on the plane that crashed about 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis, Pagel’s family confirmed.
The plane, a Cessna 441 Conquest Turboprop owned by Ponderosa Aviation, had taken off from the Eagle Creek Airport in Indianapolis and was headed to Green Bay when it crashed, according to news reports.
Pagel’s son-in-law, Steve Witcpalek, and the pilot, Nathan Saari, were also killed in the crash, the Pagel family confirmed.
“It’s a big loss. It’s a hard day. John was a great guy and an incredible force in the (dairy) industry,” said Chad Vincent, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
“The industry will miss him a lot because there aren’t a lot of farmers who will put in the time and wherewithal to support the industry like he did,” Vincent said. “He didn’t just speak for the big (dairy operations), he spoke for everybody.”
Last April, after a trade dispute led Canada to tell about 75 small- to medium-size Wisconsin dairy farms that it would stop importing their milk in 30 days, Pagel played a big role in making sure all of the farms had new buyers for their milk at the end of that 30-day period, Vincent said.
“Nobody was busier than him but there he was in the room at the (state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection) offices with (then-secretary) Ben Brancel and the rest of us making sure everybody stayed afloat,” Vincent said.
Vincent recalled that Pagel’s efforts verified for everybody in the room what they already believed about Pagel: “When John calls people, they answer the phone,” he said.
Pagel bought the Ponderosa Dairy from his parents in 1980 when it had 65 cows and 320 acres. It now milks 5,000 cows and covers over 8,500 acres, according to a Ponderosa website. He also owns Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese, which includes a store and distribution company in Luxemburg; and the Cannery, a “farm to table” restaurant, in Green Bay.
Pagel also helped start the Green Bay-based Dairy Business Association, which represents about 600 state dairy farmers, as well as the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, which represents nearly 800 dairy farmers in nine states. Pagel was board president of Edge and a busy lobbyist for its members in Washington, D.C., since it started in 2010, and it grew to become the sixth-largest cooperative in the country, according to a statement from Edge.
At home, Pagel was a member of the Kewaunee County Board and head of the county’s land and water conservation committee. That put him at the center of the controversy involving polluted wells and unsafe drinking water in the dairy-rich county.
Some environmental groups have placed blame on the small county’s 15 large dairy operations — including Pagel’s Ponderosa — that spread manure from more than 11,000 cows on ground in the area. Geologically, the region features a thin layer of soil over fractured bedrock, which makes it ripe for pollutants to easily reach groundwater.
Pagel, who told the Green Bay Press-Gazette in an interview in 2015 that he believed farmers need to be part of the solution instead of the problem, made his farm one of the most progressive in the state. For instance, Ponderosa’s manure methane digester converts enough manure each day to supply electricity for the entire farming operation as well as Kewaunee and nearby Casco, according to the operation’s website. The manure also is turned into high-quality bedding for the farm’s cows.
But Pagel remained a lightning rod for many critics of Kewaunee’s big dairy farms. Last year, environmentalists asked Pagel to resign his committee chair post, citing a conflict of interest after the Dairy Business Association filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources, according to the Kewaunee Comet newspaper. The suit asked a judge to declare that the DNR exceeded its authority to regulate CAFOs.
Pagel had big ideas and made sure they were completed correctly, and that allowed him to face any criticism head-on, Vincent said. “He felt comfortable because he felt what he was doing was right,” Vincent said.
Pagel’s family members are all part of the business, including his four children, according to the Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese website.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were expected at the crash scene Friday. Law enforcement officials said the wreckage was spread over a large area.
A statement from the family Friday said, “We appreciate the outpouring of the community’s thoughts and prayers and request your respect for the privacy of the family as we wait for additional information. As we know more details, we will keep you informed.”