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Portage County Farmers Market

Leadership Portage County September Recap – Agriculture

Recap written by: Hannah Testin

What was billed as “a day on the farm” caught many of my fellow Leadership Portage County (LPC) classmates by surprise when we pulled up to the beautiful new, state-of-the-art Heartland Farms Farm Operations, Technology, & Training Center (FOTTC). Our host, Jeremie Pavelski, was the first presenter of the day. Jeremie is a 5th generation member of the family farming operation that dates as far back as 1873. Heartland Farms formally began in 1990 when Jeremie’s dad Dick and Dave Knights formed a partnership. Today, they farm about 8,000 acres of potatoes – a major portion of their overall total 24,000 acres farmed across Portage, Adams, Waushara, and Waupaca counties!

Heartland employs around 120 full-time employees and another 150 seasonal employees, which is especially crucial come harvest, their busiest time of year. Jeremie noted that their facility is even equipped with a washer, dryer, and shower for those occasional late nights where a few choose to sleep in their offices (don’t worry, they also provide a hot meal for every single employee during those long harvest days!). But all this work pays off – Heartland Farms is the largest storage grower of potatoes in the country. They grow and store enough potatoes to fill Lambeau Field with over 200 feet of potatoes!

They’re able to accomplish this because of their progressive vision and focus on sustainability, technology, and people. In their business, technology and collaboration are key. They’ve got IT guys shadowing each job within their organization so they can better develop technology that meets their true needs. For example, they’ve built an automated rain gauge reporting system so they don’t have to send guys driving around to fields to monitor how much rain they’ve gotten – the information is at their fingertips. They’ve been able to save 70,000 gallons of fuel while farming more acres and are saving their farm managers 4 hours a day because of technology and automation. Even something as simple as replacing their storage facility lighting with LED lights saved them over $100,000, plus they generate enough solar power to power 14 family homes for a whole year. Plus, they’ve built a program to manage irrigation systems on a nozzle-by-nozzle basis and, when combined with field water monitoring technology, they’re reducing the overall amount of water they supply while providing precisely the amount of water that is needed at each point on each of their 24,000 acres. Impressive and fascinating stuff!

While Heartland focuses on using technology to support their business, Jeremie also reiterated many times the value they see in supporting their communities, employees, and future generations. They give between $130,000-200,000 annually in community donations. Heartland is the home of many 4th grade field trips, they work with technical colleges and four-year universities on apprenticeship/internship programs, and are even working to start one with a local Pacelli High School student, too.

After a brief walking tour of the FOTTC and farming operations, it was time for Jeremie to depart and Todd Kuckkahn, Portage County Business Council (PCBC) Executive Director, took the time to formally welcome our class to LPC. Todd shared some insights as to the PCBC’s key functions: talent attraction, talent development, business attraction, and business development. He shared some news about schools in Wisconsin’s program Inspire by Career Cruising, encouraging students to research and discover potential career options while they’re young so they can begin taking courses and obtaining relevant real-world experience. Todd also shared the contest-winning name for the new Portage County area community marketing website – He was sure to impart some wisdom on the group too, encouraging us to form new relationships not by telling others what we can do, but by asking others what we can do to help them.
Then, we heard from UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Ken Schroeder on some interesting county and statewide facts and figures. Did you know that agriculture generates $88.3 billion in industry sales and provides jobs for 413,500 people (11.9% total employment) for the state of Wisconsin? In Portage Co. alone, ag accounts for 17% of our economic activity ($1.17B, including $795.6M directly from farm products) and 5,448 jobs (12.5% total employment). Some of the other interesting Portage Co. ag stats we learned from Ken include:

  • 31 million gallons of milk/year produced from 13,500 cows
  • 3,700 head of beef cattle
  • 5,030 hogs/pigs
  • 49,000 acres of grains
  • 54% of county’s land use, or 278,700 acres, are owned/operated by farmers
  • Vegetables make up 57% total market value of all ag products sold in county ($167.7M market value)
  • WI #4 in nation for growing carrots and cucumbers and #1 in nation for cranberries (57% of total)
  • Portage Co. is #1 producer in state for beans (WI #1 in nation), potatoes (WI #3 in nation), and sweet corn (Wi #3 in nation) and #2 in state for peas (WI #3 in nation)
  • 989 farms in Portage Co. averaging 288 acres/farm
  • 112 farms participate in direct market sales accounting for $652,000 in sales (includes farmers markets, pick your own, roadside stands, and CSA or Community Supported Agriculture boxes)

Following Ken’s presentation, Kayla led us in a discussion on some of our interim assignment experiences. We learned a little more about Farmshed like their school programs to cook with kids and their school fundraisers and their partnership with local health care providers in which pediatricians give kids tokens to redeem at the farmers market so kids can pick their own locally grown fresh fruits and veggies to eat. We also learned that fellow LPCer Rob Luecht and his wife have a 3-4 acre farm, New Season Farm, that they work together. They even have CSA shares and had 6 members this year – we warned him that their membership was likely to skyrocket for next year after sharing this hidden treasure with all of us! Rob and his wife grow over 100 different vegetables ranging from tomatoes and squash to peppers and parsnips to carrots and corn, and have roughly 65 chickens that produce farm fresh eggs for their CSA shares, too. Check them out on Facebook for great photos of their colorful CSA boxes!


We had a little outdoor stretching and fun while we played “Get to Know You BINGO!” We learned some fun facts about our class, like how there are 3 twins, a TV commercial star, a Polka Fest Queen, and someone who has partied with Prince at Paisley Palace among us!

Our last presentation at Heartland Farms was by Melissa Sabel, Director of Marketing, Stevens Point Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. She explained her job as simply as building relationships and acting as a storyteller, and covered different reasons why people travel into our community (meetings and conventions, sports, leisure). Melissa also talked about some of the fun new things popping up in our community – Point Brewery mural, Feltz Dairy Store, Whitefeater Organics (check out their pizza night), Lonely Oak Farms (head out for Sunday brunch), and the downtown and winter farmers markets.


Did you know that travel accounts for 15,300,000 American jobs? It is the top employer industry in 49 of 50 states, including WI – sounds like more to us than just a bunch of “hamburger flippers and ticket takers!” In WI, 1 of 13 jobs is related to travel/tourism, and with and $8 to $1 return on investment (ROI) on tourism marketing, it’s essential to invest in promoting our state and our region. In 2016 alone, $124.7M was spent in Stevens Point – that’s up 4.27% from 2015 and marks the fifth straight year of growth. Visitor traffic in WI is up by 2.4 million people, nearly equivalent to taking the entire city of Chicago and moving its population to this state. As Melissa put it, it’s not like we just, “Bob Ross’d some trees” and the people came – we’ve built destinations that people want to come visit over and over again.
Tourism is booming. So how does this all tie back to agriculture? Less than 1% of people in the United States live on a farm, so visiting one becomes a destination for so many. Think about it – cheese factories, berry picking, apple picking, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, dairy stores – it all has roots in agriculture. Thanks to legislation signed into law back in 2014 (AB 746, now known as Wisconsin Act 269), it makes these ag tours and recreational activities possible by helping to reduce the liability of insurance overhead required – it makes tourism easier on the business owners which is why these new destinations, like Feltz’s Dairy Store, keep popping up.
With that, we headed out of Heartland Farms to Feltz’s Dairy Store. Jared Feltz, who oversees the robotic milking herd, is a 6th generation member of the Feltz Family Farms. In total their operation milks 680 cows, though only 100 are milked through the robotic method, and they farm about 680 acres of corn and alfalfa, grown specifically to feed their herd. Jared walked us around the impressive robotic milking barn, where again, we saw the importance of technology in farming.

Each cow has an RFID chip in their ear. They walk up to the sort gate which only admits them access to the robotic milking machine if they haven’t been there too recently, which is roughly every 5-5 ½ hours. From there, the cows are enticed into the machine as they know there’s special cherry flavored snack grain pellets there waiting for them. They enter and the 6 ½ minute process begins. First, the teats are cleaned then the milker attaches to each one. The cows are milked by quarter, meaning when one teat has given as much as it can, the milker will detach from it individually while it still continues milking the others. Following completion of the milking, the teats are all sprayed with a sanitizer, the pellets disappear, and the cow moves on. Because of the guided flow process, cows can only go one way through the gates. On average, cows are milked 3.25 times/day, though some as many as 6 times and some as few as 2 times which is calculated and communicated to their RFID chip based on their overall milk production. All of the milk produced at Feltz Family Farms is shipped over to Dairy State Cheese in Rudolph to be made into cheese.
Jared also shared with us a bit about their calving process. They do things naturally at Feltz Family Farms, so they keep about 20 bulls on hand that they rotate into their herd. Each cow has a calf about once per year, but they typically only keep their calves for about 1 week so they can maintain their focus on milking and not raising calves as they won’t be ready to milk for another 2 years. The cows are kept in the milking barn until about 60 days before calving, when they’re brought to a separate area to relax and prepare. Keeping things natural again, they only intervene when absolutely necessary during the birthing process. And while the average rate of twinning in calves is 5-6%, Feltz Family Farms sees about a 14% rate of twinning – more than double – which actually takes a little longer for the cow to recover from before it’s brought back in the milking barn. We got to see some of the newest additions ourselves before heading out on a tractor ride of the family farming operation. After dropping us back off at the dairy store, Jared invited us all in. Many purchased some locally sourced goods and foods that they stock there and we were treated to some delicious ice cream – the perfect way to close our session!