It’s a bit of a misnomer to label Jeremie Pavelski, the 2014 recipient of Spudman’s Emerging Leader Award (ELA), an emerging leader. The 31-year-old president of Heartland Farms, based in Hancock, Wis., has been involved in the potato industry since he was earning a paycheck in the first grade sweeping floors at the farm.
The second annual Emerging Leader Award, sponsored by Bayer CropScience, was presented to Pavelski at the National Potato Council’s (NPC) annual banquet Jan. 10 in San Antonio, Texas.
Pavelski and his wife, Alicia, live in Arkdale, Wis. They met in college and have been married for two years. He is the son of Barbara and Richard Pavelski, and has two older sisters, Michelle Peariso and Andria Davisson.
During his ELA acceptance speech Pavelski thanked his wife, father and family for their support and also singled out four individuals that influenced his professional development.
He thanked Pete Sippel, at one time his high school math and computer instructor, for encouraging and developing Pavelski’s computer programming skills.
When he was a high school sophomore Pavelski described himself as something of a “computer nerd” when he was a sophomore in high school. Playing computer games and hacking into the school computer system, he drew the attention of Sippel, who sought to direct Pavelski’s skills into a more positive effort by having the young hacker oversee the security of the school district’s computer network system.
He also thanked Don Sklarczyk, Howard Viegelahn and Mac Johnson for their efforts to motivate his participation in the NPC and the U.S. Potato Board.
Pavelski said that during meetings that would eventually result in the Great Lakes Compact in 2007 Sklarczyk and Viegelahn encouraged him to become more involved in the decision making process.
“Don pulls me aside and said, ‘I think you’ve got what it takes and I think you would be a great candidate to be co-chair of the water and endangered species subcommittee,” Pavelski said. “The way they approached it was truly inspiring. At that point in time I was in my mid-20s.”
He said that Johnson would often ask questions or solicit his opinion.
“Getting young people involved in the issues – I think Mac did a very good job at that,” he said.
Today he oversees a farming operation that totals 18,000 acres, with approximately 8,000 acres in potatoes annually. About 90 percent of the potatoes are for the process market and the remaining potatoes are for the fresh sector.
According to Pavelski, Heartland employs roughly 90 full-time employees with an additional 100 seasonal employees during harvest.
Pavelski’s family heritage is deeply rooted in the potato industry. He is a fifth-generation potato farmer. Paveleskis have been growing potatoes in Wisconsin’s Central Sands area since 1873, when his great-great grandfather, August Pavelski, emigrated from the Czestochowa, Poland area.
His uncle, John Pavelski, still farms August Pavelski’s 80-acre homestead in Amherst Junction.
Among his current responsibilities, Pavelski is the president of the board of directors for the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA), WPVGA chip committee chairman and WPVGA water task force co-chairman. He is also on the National Potato Council’s board of directors, the NPC water and endangered species co-chairman, the USPB chip committee and the Adams County rural and industrial development commission.
He attributes his involvement in national, state and local organizations to his father’s influence. He recalled first attending national and state conferences with his father when he was in the seventh grade.
“It’s always been something that’s intrigued me,” Pavelski said about working on committees, “being able to communicate effectively to the different groups of people who have different interests and come to a common solution.
“It kind of goes back to a saying that my grandfather and father have always said, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the table.’”
Pavelski said that his family’s farming philosophy is built on long-term relationships.
“Agriculture is something that we’ve been doing for generations,” Pavelski said. “If everybody’s really working to get that last penny out for every single year I think it can really hurt your relationships and you might not be doing what’s best for the resources. If you’re always looking at the short term I think it can be extremely detrimental. It’s got to be a win-win for all parties involved.”
While he oversees the farming operation he relies on Alicia to help with government compliance as well as administration, public relations, organizing field trips and working with reporters.
Alicia Pavelski said that because of the size of the farm some people in their community think of Heartland Farms as a corporate entity rather than a family farm.
She said that she will sometimes act as the bridge between agricultural interests and the concerns expressed by members of the community. Often it’s only a matter of taking the time to communicate and address the concerns of individuals within the community to reach an amicable resolution.
“Once you start talking to them and they realize that we’re their neighbors and you can call your neighbor, everyone is nice and respectful,” she said. “If they feel they can’t make contact that’s when they get angry.”
Both Alicia and Jeremie encourage their peers to become involved in local and national organizations, be it in the potato industry or in some other endeavor.
Every organization, whether it’s a business or community council, needs both people with experience and young people willing to learn, Alicia Pavelski said.
“At a young age you have the opportunity to get involved and learn from the people who have been there as well as bring fresh ideas into the organization,” she said.
“Don’t be afraid to do something,” Jeremie Pavelski said. “Just go ahead and do it. I think the one thing people fear is failure. There’s learning curves every single day. There’s wins every day and failures every day. The potato industry doesn’t see it as failures but as learning opportunities.”
— By Bill Schaefer, editor