Pagel legacy challenges farm-to-table assumptions

The plump bacon cheeseburger, weighing in at one-third pound, was a blend of ground chuck, brisket and short ribs. The cheese: a medium cheddar. The bacon: pecan-smoked.

You could trace the source of those key ingredients to farms within 60 miles of my plate. And that beef? You could track it back to the specific cow, if necessary, to see what it ate and when.

The restaurant owner was enthusiastic and earthy. It seemed like one-half of our dining group in spring 2017 was his children, their spouses and maybe older grandchildren. They sat together, as families do, instead of strategically positioning themselves among note-taking journalists from around the country.

In retrospect, it was much more of a joyful gathering than shrewd marketing session.

The story begins with 80 acres, eight cows and six pigs in 1946, about 25 miles away from the restaurant. Surrounding us were reminders of farm life: remnants of a corn crib here, old silo there, barn beams and haymow boards too. These reclaimed materials adorned walls, framed windows and were turned into dining tables, wine racks.

“Our intention was to bring the farm to the city,” explained our host, the youngest of seven kids raised on the family homestead. “Transparency and traceability of food” were important to him.

Blending into the restaurant was a specialty food market. Buy kombucha by the glass or growler. Ponder a menu of dog treats: bake-your-own, wheat-free, liver treats, pork bones. In refrigeration cases were links of meaty snack sticks for people: mildly spiced, barbecue, salsa-and-cheese, buffalo-chicken-wing-style and more.

“The products we don’t make, we try to get from other local farms,” the proprietor said. “A lot of mom and pop shops are represented here.” His business – The Cannery, in Green Bay – contains an upstairs Hay Loft (private dining room) in addition to the classy-casual restaurant and market.

“Farm-to-table” is an accurate but incomplete description of the endeavor. The destination is a myth buster, perhaps a trend setter and proof that not everything in this world can be simplified into an easy sound bite.

That’s because John Pagel owned both The Cannery and Pagel’s Ponderosa, billed as the largest family-owned farm in Wisconsin. Think 8,300 acres, at least 5,000 dairy cows and two barns, each three football fields in length.

About 525 cows are milked per hour at the Kewaunee County estate. Enough beef is produced for burgers and steaks at The Cannery; “an abundance of hamburger” means enough to sell to other restaurants. The owner’s logic: “If we’re going to have a restaurant, it’s only natural to raise the beef.”

Add enough milk to produce a line of Ponderosa Farmstead Cheeses and fresh cheese curds, made as customers watch from behind an observation window at The Cannery.

But what began as the family patriarch’s bold vision is now a part of his legacy. John Pagel and son-in-law Steve Witcpalek died Feb. 22 in a small-plane crash near Indianapolis that also killed pilot Nathan Saari.

Kewaunee County is home to three times more cows than people, and the size of Pagel’s Ponderosa is what complicates this tale of field-to-fork dining. It also makes Mr. Pagel’s work remarkable and precedent-setting, in Wisconsin and likely beyond.

People who favor markets and restaurants with locally grown food typically aim to support small family farms, not industrial sized, but “farms our size are what feed our U.S. population,” Julie Veldhuis, Pagel’s Ponderosa spokeswoman, reminded me a couple of years ago.

Farm-to-table eating began many generations before “foodie” entered the vocabulary. The contemporary push is thanks to the Slow Food Movement, which began in Italy after a 1980s protest against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome.

It didn’t take all that long for industrialized food production to then get cast as a global villain of consumers and the environment, sometimes for good reason, but John Pagel muddied that supposition. He argued that “big” means capable of monitoring and ensuring food safety every step of the way. Literally from farm to dining table, in this case.

He and his family worked hard to make others understand. They opened the farm for tours and bought a nearby cheese factory, Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese in Luxemburg.

The Cannery opened in 2015 in a long-vacant, century-old vegetable canning factory and has helped revitalize downtown Green Bay. The menu showcases the Pagel farm’s Limousin beef – a French breed that rivals the more well-known Angus in tenderness and flavor.

Animal monitoring by embedded computer chip is business as usual at Pagel’s Ponderosa: That helps ensure the milk and meat are safe food sources. Should concerns occur, they can be traced quickly and specifically.

The farm’s methane digester converts manure to electricity, enough for the farm and the communities of Kewaunee and Casco. It also converts manure into clean bedding for the cows.

“There are people who don’t appreciate it until they understand it for what it is,” John Pagel said of his farm, matter-of-factly, during that 2017 meeting with writers.

In addition to his family businesses, he was co-founder and president of the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative, based in Green Bay and the sixth-largest in the nation, representing around 800 farmers in nine Midwest states.

The Cannery, 320 N. Broadway, Green Bay, is closed on Mondays. thecannerymarket.com, 920-432-3300

Reservations are recommended for touring Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, N4893 Hwy. C, Kewaunee. pagelsponderosa.com, 920-388-3333

Also in the revamped cannery building in downtown Green Bay is Titletown Beerworks, an expansion of Titletown Brewing Company, which began making beer in 1996 in a converted train depot at 200 Dousman St. Now a rooftop taproom in the cannery draws craft beer lovers too. A $10 brewery tour includes four pours, each six ounces, and a souvenir glass. Closed on Mondays. titletownbrewing.com, 920-437-2337