WATERLOO — The Wapsie Valley Creamery Inc. has been in Independence for more than a century with generations of the same family providing cheese and dairy products all around the Midwest. Four generations of Nielsens have worked at the creamery, and Mark Nielsen is the latest president. Mark Nielsen’s son works as engineer in the plant.
“I’m the third generation of family, and my son’s the fourth,” Mark Nielsen said. “We’ve been in the cheese business since about World War II times.”
Nielsen’s son is a chemical engineer and runs the plant, while Mark Nielsen, 66, does the book work and deals with customers.
The creamery sells its cheese wholesale to companies around the country to use in processed cheese, cheese spreads, shredded cheeses and calf milk replacer. Odds are you’ve tasted their product without knowing it.
“They really are a cornerstone of this community,” said George Lake, Buchanan County Economic Development Commission director.
The creamery is one of Iowa’s three cheese factories still operating.
“There’s lots of smaller farmstead people in smaller operations,” Nielsen said.
The creamery has customers all around the world. Most of their customers are east of Iowa.
“Most of our product leaves the state,” Nielsen said. “Everything we sell goes to a private label.”
The company is continuing to expand into 2019 and hopes to add more employees to its roster. Currently, Wapsie Valley Creamery employs more than 80 in the plant and works with dairy farmers around the Midwest.
“My grandfather came over from Denmark and he took dairy science at the University of Minnesota and got in to it,” Nielsen said.
The creamery makes cheddar, Colby Jack, Monterey Jack, Muenster, queso and other varieties.
Nielsen said he’s looking to expand the creamery’s equipment and capacity.
“We’re planning to go up 50 percent on production capacity to keep the business going forward,” Nielsen said. “We want to expand the current product line. We want to make more of the same products that we’re making now.”
Three years ago the creamery installed new cheese equipment sized for larger production.
“We have a good reputation with our customers and they’re interested in more products,” Nielsen said. “As we upgrade everything we’re sizing it for a larger capacity.”
A lot of the upgrades are coming through automation running through computers.
“We trying to get the process so there’s less physical labor and more watching a computer screen and pushing a button,” Nielsen said. “Some of jobs we have now are pretty physically demanding,and we want to get so that pretty much anybody can do the job regardless of their physical condition.”
The creamery is always hiring. Currently, Nielsen is looking for people with a background in computer engineering, maintenance and programming.
“In 2020 we’re going have the next phase of the cheese expansion will be done and then we’ll need some more people,” Nielsen said. “Every year the demand is a little different.”
The creamery works with several dairy farms in Iowa and other states. People throughout Buchanan County are employed by the creamery in one way or another.
“We’ve got 220 farms that we buy milk from,” Nielsen said. “Most of the farms are not in this immediate area. We go to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.”
They also work with farmers in the hillier parts of the Mississippi Valley and other parts of Iowa.
“Most of customers are just not in Iowa,” he said. “Wisconsin’s America’s dairy land so a lot of our customers are there or out east, because there’s plenty of cheese being made out west.”
The creamery has won numerous awards for their cheese, primarily in Wisconsin based and national competitions.
“We’re usually in the top five of what we submit,” Nielsen said.
The Nielsens, and by extension the creamery, have been involved with Buchanan County and Independence community.
“The family and the business are deeply active in the community,” Lake said. “The family members are active on various community committees and boards. They give very freely of themselves.”
The creamery is one of the largest employers in Buchanan County.
“We’re been here a long time,” Nielsen said. “We do a lot of contributions for local events.”
The creamery helps sponsor the Independence Fourth of July celebrations and other community activities, he said.
“We intend to be here for the long haul,” Nielsen said. “We’ve been here for a long time. We like it here, and we want to continue to grow here.”