While Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee has sold its milk to cheesemakers for decades, late owner John Pagel always dreamed of the dairy making and selling its own cheese. In 2016, that dream became a reality when the dairy purchased cheesemaking equipment, hired licensed cheesemakers and opened its own farmstead cheesemaking operation, Ponderosa Dairy Products.
“We go from cow to cheese in six hours,” says Ben Shibler, a licensed cheesemaker and operations manager for Ponderosa Dairy Products. “To be considered a farmstead operation, you need to make cheese from your own herd onsite and that’s what we’ve done here.”
The cheesemaking area is adjacent to the dairy’s 72-cow rotary milking parlor. At a designated time daily, the milk from the parlor comes into a 1,500-gallon batch pasteurizer holding tank in the cheesemaking area instead of a refrigerated milk tanker truck sitting outside. From there, the milk is pasteurized before the cheesemaking process begins.
“We have a unique opportunity where we can make cheese as fresh as possible,” Shibler says. “We can use it within 90 seconds to two minutes. The sooner you can get it and use it, the better. We pride ourselves on the fact we have the freshest product around.”
Farmstead cheese is growing in popularity as consumers are more cognizant of where their food comes from, says Erin O’Toole, the dairy’s marketing coordinator. More than 5,500 pounds of cheese are made weekly at Ponderosa.
“Pagel’s is family-run with the third generation now running the dairy, and family is important to what we do here,” she says.
Ponderosa Dairy Products makes a variety of cheese products from string cheese and cheese whips to curds and blocks. The cheese is sold at Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese, Festival Foods and other stores in the region. It also is served at The Cannery, a Green Bay farm-to-table restaurant owned by the Pagel family.
Even though it’s only been in business for three years, Ponderosa Dairy Products is already winning awards for its cheeses, including its Farmstead String Cheese and Farmstead Cheese Whips, which won silver medals at the 2018-19 World Cheese Awards, and its Farmstead Fiesta String Cheese, which won a gold medal at the 2019 U.S. Cheese Championship.
Pagel’s milks a Jersey-Holstein mix, which Shibler says provides the best-quality milk for cheesemaking. The cows are all raised at Ponderosa from birth, which provides for total quality control and traceability. The animals’ diet also consists primarily of crops grown on the farm.
The dairy includes multiple interior windows allowing visitors to see the cheesemaking process. “It’s the perfect way to educate people about agriculture,” O’Toole says. “Ag tourism is definitely a growing area” for the dairy, with thousands visiting Pagel’s annually for tours.
Pagel’s purchased Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese in 2014 as a precursor to making cheese at the dairy. The store packages and ships the cheese made at the dairy. The most popular cheese selections include the dairy’s original Snow Cheddar, Garlic & Herb, 3 Pepper Cheddar and Horseradish Jack, Shibler says.
Ponderosa Dairy Products is just one segment of the Pagels’ business. The dairy milks more than 5,000 cows daily with the milk going to Saputo Cheese in Green Bay and has a beef ranch that it sources for its Ponderosa Limousin Meats, which are served at The Cannery and beef steaks and jerky sold at Ron’s Wisconsin Cheese.
This year, a station that makes renewable gas from the methane created in the dairy’s biodigester will open onsite. The renewable gas will be added to a pipeline and eventually be used by vehicles that run on compressed natural gas. The dairy is partnering with DTE Energy in Detroit on the project.