Heartland Farms of Hancock, Wis.

Published in the February 2016 Issue Published online: Feb 13, 2016 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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Expanding a business—especially a farm business—is a tricky proposition. Doing it once is quite a feat. Succeeding at expansion over the course of years, even decades, takes a special breed. It takes the guts to pull the trigger on tough decisions, the prudence to back off when necessary, the curiosity to innovate, and the wherewithal to anticipate where the industry as a whole is headed.

The Pavelski and Knights families of Wisconsin have proud histories full of just such people. August Pavelski emigrated from Poland in 1873 and began farming an 80-acre homestead near Amherst Junction, Wis. The same pioneering spirit that drove August to cross an ocean and parts of two continents create a new home and life for his family still flows through Pavelski veins. August’s great-grandson, Richard Pavelski, currently serves as CEO of Heartland Farms, which has become one of the largest and most innovative potato and vegetable operation in the U.S. Richard’s son, Jeremie Pavelski, is the company’s president; Jeremie’s wife Alicia also pitches in as the farm’s project manager.

The Pavelskis have always been keen on expanding their operation. As such, Dave Knights—whose family has been farming in the Midwest since the 1860s—was brought on as a partner in 1990, and the company’s name was officially changed from A.M. Pavelski & Sons to Heartland Farms. Knights is now Heartland’s executive vice president.

Today, Heartland Farms encompasses some 24,000 irrigated acres spread across four Wisconsin counties. Potatoes are the heart and soul of the operation, with about 8,500 acres of Heartland land dedicated to the crop annually. Though the farm is of a size that makes it difficult to ignore, all of the company’s farm acreage is within 100 miles of it headquarters.

“We try to stick to our core competency, and that’s potatoes,” says Jeremie Pavelski. “We rent out most of the rest of our land for rotational crops.”

All of Heartland’s potatoes go to the chipping sector, and the company’s vast amount of potato land makes for a lot of chips. Heartland Farms is one of the largest storage suppliers for chips in the U.S., storing upwards of 4.5 million hundredweight per year.

“It’s taken us a long time to get to where we are,” says Jeremie. “We’re very fortunate to have very productive ground here, and we don’t take that lightly.”

The folks at Heartland Farms have a hard time standing still, and that’s evident in their dedication to constantly try new things. From the equipment operators and mechanics to applicators and IT personnel, Heartland employees are encouraged to seek out the newest and most innovative products and practices.

“We like to experiment with new technologies coming down the pipeline and learn as much as we can about them on utilizing technology and getting our people trained on that technology. Over time, we’re going to need to produce more food with fewer inputs. I think the emerging technology is going to drive that.”

Heartland Farms is currently constructing a 30,000-square-foot facility dubbed the farm operations, technology and training center. The facility will house Heartland’s teams and provide a home for collaboration and technology training, further enabling the farm to remain on the leading edge of agricultural technology.

Heartland Farms also strives to be a leader in educating the general public in farm life and business. Every effort is made to regularly bring local and state governments officials to the farm to get their hands dirty and answer questions. In fact, public education is so important to the company that it has donated money to ensure that elementary school field trips to the farm (many of which would have been eliminated in recent years due to school districts’ budget cuts) continue.

“Agriculture in general has a big challenge in educating the public,” says Alicia. “People are becoming so far removed and often don’t understand or want to take the time to understand what we do and why we do it. We’re doing all we can to educate them.”

“A lot of growers have a hard time having people out on their place,” says Jeremie. “We say, ‘Come on out here and see what we’re doing. The more you know, the better relationship we’ll have.’”

“Farmers in general are very humble people; they’re not out to get a pat on the back for providing food,” says Alicia. “They really need to start doing that more in general. It’s never been a part of the industry to brag about doing our job, but now it is.”

If ever there were a job worth bragging about, it’s growing potatoes. The people of Heartland Farms know this, and they plan on using every available tool to ensure such “bragging” is much more than empty words.