Skip to main content

Humble beginnings built on a strong foundation

Nasonville Dairy is the oldest cheese plant in Wood County

share arrow printer bookmark flag

February 5, 2024

NASONVILLE – At one time, Wisconsin was known across the country as America’s Dairyland – as it was home to about 1,900 dairy plants in 1953.

Today, Wisconsin has only about 120 – one of them being Nasonville Dairy.

Founded in 1885, Nasonville Dairy is the oldest cheese plant in Wood County.

Though it is theoretically a third-generation dairy – owned today by the Heiman family’s three sons, Ken, Kelvin and Kim – its ownership changed hands five times in its lifetime.

A peek at the history

When it first began, Nasonville Dairy was a privately-owned, small cheese manufacturing operation that got its milk from just 50 cows delivered by horse-drawn wagons.

It became a co-op, owned by some local farmers, during World War I – later returning to private ownership during World War II.

Due to the turbulent economy, it became a co-op again in the early 1960s – the Lincoln Center Co-op.

In 1968, the Heiman family – Arnold and Rena Mae, along with their three sons (Ken, Kim and Kelvin) and daughter (Kathy), who had experience running cheese plants elsewhere in Wisconsin – started running and managing the dairy for Lincoln Center.

In 1985, the Heimans purchased the co-op, changing it back to its original name, Nasonville Dairy.

Today, Nasonville Dairy has three locations – two cheese plants in Nasonville and Curtiss and a bottling plant in Marshfield.

Turning passion into profits

As the eldest of the three Heiman brothers, Ken said he has always been passionate about carrying forward his parents’ legacy.

He said he has been equally passionate about improving his craft and the art of cheesemaking – becoming a licensed cheesemaker in Wisconsin at the age of 16.

Ken was soon joined by his brothers and sister – all of whom have contributed to the cheese plant’s operations.

Today, a master cheesemaker, Ken said he thrives on marrying art and science to get the right flavor and texture of their product, as he continues to grow the company.

“Today, we run about 1.8 million pounds of milk a day, about six days a week – Saturdays are a little shorter days,” he said. “Every tanker hauls about 51,000 pounds of milk. Every one of those will last us 37-and-a-half minutes.” 

The Nasonville plant alone, Ken said, produces about 160,000 pounds of cheese a day (buying milk from more than 190 local farms) – more than 46 million pounds of cheese a year, with more than 60% of that being made into cheddar. 

The plant off Highway 29 in Curtiss, which Ken said they refer to as Nasonville North, is much smaller.

“What they do in a day, I do in about 18 minutes,” he said. “They run about 25,000 pounds of milk a day.”

Though smaller, Ken said the Nasonville North plant produces many of Nasonville Dairy’s unique flavors.

“They run their cheese curds first, but they also make a lot of the flavors,” he said. “They can make anything from a caraway jack to the chipotles to the cranberry cheeses, to the dill, to the garden vegetable to the ghost pepper.”

The recent popularity of the ghost pepper, Ken said, has brought most of its production to the main plant.

“But maple syrup, mustard jack, onion jack, onion and chive, three-pepper colby jack, spinach artichoke, spinach jack – all these unusual things are things we expect them to make,” he said.

In all, Ken said Nasonville Dairy makes 42 different kinds of cheese.

Expansion, finding new markets 

In addition to Nasonville Dairy’s sales in the U.S., Ken said the company has an international reach as well.

“Today, we ship to China, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Panama and several other different places throughout the world,” he said.

Ken said the company’s total exports range from 3% to 4.5-5% of its total production annually. 

“It varies based on the dollars people have to spend on protein and whether that protein is going to be in the form of grain, meat or cheese,” he said. “It’s whatever protein they’re able to buy.”

Though China only represents about 1.5-2% of Nasonville Dairy’s total production, Ken said it’s “a starting point.” 

“We’ve seen that to make products that are saleable in other parts of the world, we needed to expand and come up with new ways of making it work here,” he said. 

The Nasonville plant, Ken said, is designed so additions can continually happen to keep up with the times and demand.

In the last few years, he said, there have been between 22,000-24,000 square feet added to the plant – with an addition to the plant’s existing sewer needed this summer. 

“The last expansion was more the addition of new equipment to get to the new phosphorus levels the State of Wisconsin and the EPA were asking for,” he said. 

Ken said Nasonville North will also be expanding this summer, with a new intake system being built.

Between the two plants planned expansions, he said it will be another 20,000 square feet total.

Ken said the bottling plant saw an expansion in recent years, as well.

“A lot of bottling plants in Wisconsin were shut down over the years,” he said. “We were already bottling milk for some of the schools, so we went to them with the idea of making milk pouches. It has worked out quite well.”

A year ago, Ken said Nasonville was working with five schools – “this year we have 17.”

“Next year, I believe we’ll have quite a few more than that,” he said. “Right now, we have about 11,500 students a day we supply with milk.”    

The pandemic

Ken said the COVID-19 pandemic uniquely affected Nasonville Dairy.

“COVID was tough, but (it) made us think about the value of our people,” he said. “The people we work with are as good as gold… We were in a unique situation because we didn’t get to create a backlog. Milk comes in the door and it’s going to leave as a product or it’s (going to be wasted).”

Ken said Nasonville Dairy hired about 20 new people during COVID – mainly because the company got heavier into packaging and to fill positions when others retired.

“One of the things we learned during COVID was we were too heavy in food service, and we needed to do a better job of being more into retail,” he said. “We were starting to move more into retail when COVID started, but during that time, we had to push it even harder and get further and further into retail.”

During COVID, Ken said the company developed a sales department, and “they’ve done a phenomenal job of getting us into places in the state and throughout the country.”

“They’ve also helped us get new products in the right venue,” he said. “You can come up with the next new product, but if you put it in the wrong place where it’s not going to be used, it’ll flop.” 

Today, Ken said the Nasonville plant employs 165 people.

With the other two plants and the company’s trucking staff, he said Nasonville Dairy has about 225-230 employees total – which includes 18 licensed cheesemakers.

“What Nasonville has that’s a little unique is we have four master cheesemakers at this moment, and two who are in school right now,” he said. “Our first female master cheesemaker will get her diploma this fall, and the other will get his the following year.”

Ken said becoming a master cheesemaker is essentially being a Ph. D. in cheese with a three-year commitment. 

A family affair

Spanning multiple generations – father, sons and grandchildren, as well as other family members – the Heimans continue to carry forward their knowledge and passion for cheesemaking.

Together, Ken, Kim and Kelvin have five sons working in the business.

In addition, the plant also employs three grandsons; one niece and a couple of nephews; Kathy’s husband, Mark, who is instrumental in the maintenance department; Ken’s daughter-in-law, who runs the mail order company and 10 granddaughters who work in the plant during the holiday season handling mail orders. 

As for himself, Ken said he is looking forward to retiring in the next five years or so.

Always thinking ahead, the brothers already have their sights set on Ken’s successor as head of the company – CPA Controller Dustin Follen.

“The person who sits in my chair can’t necessarily be family – but he’ll answer to the family,” he said. “If you look at some of the most successful people out there, it has to do with how they propagate things to make the company work.” 

Ken said Follen has been with Nasonville for five years and is learning things “a little bit at a time.”

“He’s got all the right qualities, and he’ll do a great job,” he said. “He’s the same age as the boys, and they look at him like he’s another brother.”

Reflecting as he approaches retirement, Ken said he’s thankful for where the company is and the customers it has.

“We’re thankful for the people who work with us – they’re phenomenal,” he said. “We enjoy what we do and enjoy being a part of the community and giving back to the community. We believe that almost anything you need you can find either in our immediate area or close by. And we’re grateful for that, too.”

To learn more about the cheese-making company, visit

share arrow printer bookmark flag

Trending View All Trending