Tradition and innovation add up to success
for Nasonville Dairy.
Located in Marshfield, WI, Nasonville Dairy stands tall in the heart of America’s Dairyland. This is a success story rooted in the enduring dedication of the Heiman family, traditional cheesemakers who have risen to the challenges of the global marketplace.
Founded in 1885, when area farmers would deliver cans of milk in horse-drawn wagons, Nasonville Dairy is now a state-of-the-art enterprise with a coast-to-coast and global clientele and annual sales totaling more than $140 million.
“We’re the oldest dairy in Wood County,” Nasonville CEO Ken Heiman says proudly.
A Storied History
Established as a private enterprise to process milk from local herds of about 50 cows, Nasonville became a co-operative owned by local dairy farmers around World War I.
By the second World War, it was back under private ownership, where it remained until the 1960s, when the company was acquired by Lincoln Cooperative.
In 1968, the co-op hired Arnold and Rena Mae Heiman to manage the business.
The Heimans were veterans of the dairy business, having worked for several other dairies around Wisconsin by then. They knew what they were about, and with their hard work and perseverance, they soon had the business on solid ground.
Their eldest son, Ken, and his siblings Kim, Kelvin and Kathy grew up at the dairy, helping their parents secure a solid future for the business.
Ken earned his certification as a licensed cheesemaker at only 16. Brothers Kim and Kelvin soon followed in his footsteps, while sister Kathy got involved in other aspects of the operation.
In 1985, the family purchased the business, returning it to its original name to honor the stewardship of generations of Wisconsin dairy farmers.
Their parents encouraged all of the Heiman children to get an education outside of the dairy business, but the three boys were eventually drawn back to the dairy, ready to apply the academic and technical skills they acquired to growing the company.
“We all went away and came back,” says Ken Heiman, who, like brother Kim, holds a degree in architectural engineering. Kelvin pursued a technical education, acquiring skills that he puts to use in the business on a daily basis.
While daughter Kathy opted out of working in the dairy, her husband later joined the ever-growing family business.
In 1995, the Heiman family purchased a farm that was originally owned by the Weber family. Ken’s wife, Joellen, is a Weber and grew up in the business, which she manages today.
Kelvin’s wife, Marilyn, handles human resources for the family enterprises.
Today, a third generation of Heimans that include Kelvin’s five sons are also key members of the Nasonville Dairy enterprise. The family handles a variety of responsibilities that encompasses raising the Heiman Holsteins, a manufacturing and trucking operation and the direct-to-consumer retail business, Weber Farm Store.
“On any given day, there’s usually three generations at work,” Heiman says. “We are very happy that our family is here, and that the next generation is taking an enormous interest.”
A Growing Venture
Over the past three-and-a-half decades, Nasonville has expanded its operations, modernized its facilities, increased its market reach, and developed new products with a quality that reflects the proudest traditions of Wisconsin cheesemaking.
“Here, everything begins with Mother Nature,” says Heiman. “We strive to do what is good for the farmer, for the animal, for the consumer.”
It is a business irretrievably bonded to the region and to the people and animals whose fortunes are entwined with the Heiman family and the dairy they operate.
“The biggest thing of all is the dairy farms in our area,” says Heiman. “These produce the highest quality of milk that we can imagine, and they have allowed us to expand. We have an extremely large milkshed and support about 190 family farms in the state of Wisconsin.”
Today, Nasonville processes 1.5 million pounds of milk per day, which is used to produce more than 160,000 pounds of cheese daily.
Compared to the modest numbers of just a few decades ago, it’s almost an unimaginable leap.
“When Dad bought the plant, all of the farms were still shipping canned milk,” Heiman recalls, noting that at that point, the plant was processing 7,500 pounds of milk per day.
“What we used to run in a month we now do in an hour,” he says.
But in a time when market forces are making it more and more challenging for dairy farmers to survive, success is not something anyone involved in the industry can take for granted.
In 1952, there were 14,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin. Today, there are less than 7,000 licensed herds in the state.
Nevertheless, the dairy industry remains a powerful contributor to the state’s economy, bringing in some $46 billion dollars per year.
The dairy industry is also one of the state’s largest employers.
Nasonville employs more than a hundred people, many of whom have been neighbors and friends for generations.
“We actually employ 9.9% of the people in the state of Wisconsin,” Heiman says. “We make sure that our employees share in the profits. It’s all about taking care of them and taking care of our milk.”
The staff also includes 17 licensed cheesemakers and three master cheesemakers: Ken Heiman, Tom Torkelson and Brian Jackson.
Wisconsin is the only state to award the Master Cheesemaker certification, which is administered through the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin. To be eligible, industry veterans must have 10 years of experience and complete the requirements of a three-year program. At press time, there were only 70 master cheesemakers in the state.
With an increasingly innovative product line and a customer base that spans the globe, there is always plenty of work to go around.
An International Following
Nasonville’s expertise in product development allows the company to custom-design cheeses to satisfy the taste and texture preferences of its clients.
Despite the hurdles required to comply with government regulations in a time of tariffs and other challenges, Nasonville has had success in the global market.
“We’ve been doing business with China for almost three years,” Heiman says.
“People in China are looking to eat like the West,” he says. “It has been really fantastic to develop the market.”
Other areas of the globe opening to American markets hold great potential for cheesemakers like Nasonville, a company willing to invest the time and resources in developing quality products that appeal to a diverse consumer base.
In the Middle East, increasing affluence and more exposure to international culture and cuisine has created opportunities for American cheesemakers like Nasonville, which has developed a wide range of product lines like feta in brine and fermented milk products like kefir.
Nasonville’s commitment to quality ensures that its products are worthy competition to traditional offerings from the European Union.
Cheeses like feta, mozzarella, Parmesan and blue cheese are in demand.
It’s a frustrating irony to Heiman that while American producers are not permitted to use the term “Roquefort” because it refers to cheese made in a specific region of France, there is no such prohibition against France or other nations using the term ‘blue cheese’ to describe cheese in that style created in Wisconsin.
A Diverse Product Roster
Nasonville’s Master Cheesemakers Heiman and Torkelson have developed and trademarked Nasonville’s own Blue Marble Jack, crafted for “meltability,” Heiman says.
It is one of the stars in a product line that now numbers more than 20 varieties of cheese that is made naturally, without the use of whey.
Its product base ranges from traditional cheddar to an ever-growing selection of artisanal cheese.
Those selections feature hints of sweetness in offerings like Apple Cinnamon cheese to peppered cheeses that rise up the Scoville Heat Scale, ranging from jalapeño pepper (2,500-8,000 on the heat scale), through habanero, ghost pepper, scorpion and its signature (and very seriously hot) Carolina Reaper cheese, which tops out at 1.57-2.2 million Scoville units.
For those with less incendiary tastes, Nasonville offers a variety of flavorful cheeses that include Buffalo Wing Jack; Horseradish and Chives; Pepperoni Marble; and Spinach and Artichoke.
It also is developing ultra-filtered, reduced lactose cheeses.
Nasonville makes a point of exploring the potential for development of memorable cheeses.
“We are blessed with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research,” Heiman says. “If you bring back a cheese, we’ll try to help you break it down and see what it is and how it works. What keeps us alive is versatility.”
And he believes they’re blessed with the environmental resources that make great cheese possible.
“The waters in Wisconsin are where the minerals are,” he says. “Our water is very close to the [mineral content of water in the] Swiss Alps and the Black Forest.”
That mineral content is what separates good cheese from great.
“It’s no different than the water that makes the wine,” Heiman continues. “Remember, milk is 86% water.”
If the magic is in the water, the muscle is definitely in the commitment the Heiman family and their employees have made to the quality of their products.
While the practical aspects of running a 21st century dairy business are many and complex, Nasonville Dairy remains rooted in the land and its place in the cycle of creation. “The most important thing in making cheese is our ability to create,” Heiman says. “We begin with the earth. We take such reverence in the earth. It’s all about the care and custody of the land. When you leave the earth, you just gotta leave it a better place than when you got here.”