LENA – “That first compliment from a farmer had me hooked,” Nicole Zaidel said of showing how energy efficiency projects can improve a farm’s financial bottom line.
“Farmers are personable, you can talk to them like a friend,” said Zaidel, who works as an energy advisor for Focus on Energy, a statewide program that promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy, funded by Wisconsin utilities.
“Unlike some other businesses, when you meet with a farmer you’re usually talking with the owner and decision maker,” she added.
“I’m always impressed not only with the work that goes into feeding our world, but how every farm operates a little differently from others” said the former 4-H and FFA member. “I feel fortunate to see the variety of Wisconsin agriculture firsthand.”
Zaidel lived in Green Bay before moving to small hobby farm in Oconto Falls at 13. She credits joining FFA as an eighth grader with more than fostering her passion for agriculture.
“I think FFA sculpted who I became as a person,” she said. “I was shy. The leadership opportunities that came from being an FFA officer broke me out of my shell.”
During high school she worked on a dairy farm near Gillett.
“I milked cows, fed calves, picked rocks, really anything that needed to be done,” she recalled. “It was probably my favorite job that I’ve ever had. The farm owners became my pseudo FFA family.”
Zaidel graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan. By then she missed being on farms and FFA.
“I was afraid that part of my life was gone,” she recalls.
That wasn’t the case. Soon a friend told her about a job opening with Focus on Energy. An engineering degree and agricultural background made her a match for job informing farmers of financial incentives and technical assistance with energy efficiency projects.
For the past five years she has worked with farmers in a service territory that includes Marinette, Menominee, Oconto, Shawano and Waupaca counties.
Zaidel resides in Lena (about 40 miles north of Green Bay) with her husband, Cody, and their one-year-old son. Cody works for a custom harvesting company. She’s a lifetime member of the Oconto Falls FFA Alumni and regular volunteer at the annual Oconto County Breakfast on the Farm.
Replacing lighting with LED (light emitting diode) bulbs is a common upgrade she advises for farms.
“It’s really low-hanging fruit that provides energy and cost savings for many farms,” she said. “Too often with old lighting fixtures, they keep working. So replacing them doesn’t always come to mind.”
Zaidel worked on a lighting retrofit on a large dairy farm where the usage of LED fixtures were able to cut the number of light fixtures in the barn and milking parlor by half. The farm was eligible for an incentive of more than $100,000, making the return on their investment less than three years.