On Highway 57 about halfway between Lake Michigan and Lake Winnebago you’ll find Kiel, Wisconsin. It’s a classic Midwestern small town. The main drag, Fremont Street, follows along with the Sheboygan River.

Small mom-and-pop shops sit next to churches, the buildings a mix of well-worn brick and more modern construction. But closer to the highway, some fast food names have crept in.

This manufacturing town is clearly embracing progress—while being sure it doesn’t forget its small town values. And tucked away on the Northwest side of town you’ll find a plant going through a similar evolution.

With a population of a whopping 3,738, it’s no surprise everyone in town seems to know someone who works at the Land O’Lakes Kiel Cheese Plant. Driving up, the plant was surprisingly unassuming. It might have had something to do with the grey, dreary morning. But just inside, through a double set of doors, a warm welcome was waiting.

The plant was built in 1948 with cheese production starting in February of 1949. In 1981, the former Lake to Lake Dairy Cooperative merged with Land O’Lakes, Inc. The whey plant was added in 1984, with production starting that August.

Today, Kiel plays a key role in Land O’Lakes’ Dairy Foods business. Part of Global Dairy Ingredients, the plant takes in milk from our member-owners and turns it into high-quality cheese and whey products, supplying our domestic and export needs. The plant produces 40 pound blocks of cheese, mostly cheddar for aging to sharp and extra sharp, as well as some Monterey Jack. It also produces high-quality whey products in 55 pound bags and bulk loads.

Inside the cheese room, there was no mistaking what they make. Bright orange blocks move down the line. Forklifts zip back and forth, taking packed boxes from the robotic palletizer across the plant to cold storage. But the boxes don’t stay there long. All the cheese produced at Kiel is aged and packaged at other locations.

Throughout the plant, everyone is happy to share what they’re all about—their cheddar. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just any cheese. At Kiel, they make award-winning cheddar—and they’re proud of it. 

"Pride goes a long way for a lot of people."



Luke Kopecky | Coordinator/Assistant Coordinator

Luke Kopecky hasn’t missed a single day of work in almost 27 years. That’s even more impressive when you factor in his commitment to family. “I’ve got a couple goals in life and one of the top ones is that everything is about family.”

His parents farmed for many years and sold their milk to Land O’Lakes. That was his introduction to the cheese plant. He started working as a general laborer, moving around a bit, before getting his cheese making license and moving into his current position as a part-time assistant coordinator and part-time coordinator.

When he’s the cheese maker in the vat room, his day starts with filling the vats with milk. If they’re making colored cheese, next in is the color. At a certain point the starter goes in, and Luke will take a milk sample for the lab to test. Once the vat’s full, he adds rennet to set the milk. The curds need time to cook, then it’s time for another test sample.

Luke watches the computer, monitoring the whole process. There’s filling, setting, cooking, cutting, pumping, washing. This part of the job takes about 1 ½ hours. Start to finish, it’ll take about five hours from when vat begins to fill with pasteurized milk until the blocks of cheese have been packaged.
One of Luke’s most memorable days was about 15 years ago. The team had put his name on a block of cheese that went on to win 3rd place in the World Cheddar Competition. Luke and his wife were on hand in Madison, Wisconsin, to accept the award.

“I’m proud of making cheese that’s not only recognized around the state and the country, but the world, for its taste and quality,” he says. “We all work hard together to put out a great quality product that we can all be proud of at Land O’Lakes.”

"We try for 90 percent ageable. That’s what we get the premium price for."


The draining matting conveyor (DMC) is big—1 ½ stories big. Even though it’s set in the back of the cheese room, it’s hard to miss. Al Merten is the man in charge of the machine.  

Cheese makes its way out of the vats to the DMC. There it moves from the top down to the towers. Al says that usually takes about 30 minutes. As the cheese is formed into blocks, the last of the whey is pressed out.

Al does a number of tests along the way, checking for things like the pH and salt levels. “It has to hit the right mark,” he says. “I’ll go up or down on starter to get it within range.” Every 5 to 6 vats, he’ll do a salt check. “We try to shoot for 162 to 169 pounds of salt per vat.”

One of Al’s most memorable days on the job involved a particularly problematic run of Monterey Jack. “The cheese backed up in the machine–solid. It was so bad it came out the doors in the back. But the Land O’Lakes team went into action, working like a well-oiled machine to get this bad situation made into a right one.”

Al says everyone helped out, from those in the cheese room to office personnel. It took some shovels and a lot of hard work to clear the machine, but in the end, it was a positive learning experience. “Everyone just kept working. It took almost 6 hours, but we learned from it.”

"We have good cheese, made by good people."



Keep in mind the blocks weigh upwards of 40 pounds. Safe to say, Gale Henning’s cheese flipping technique is impressive. Just how did she hone that skill? “Your first week you’re really hurting,” she laughs. “After that, your muscles get used to it.”

Gale’s shift starts with catching up on the computer before heading to the cheese room. “We go in and make sure everything’s ready,” she says. “You get your boxes and your liners ready, then start your day with cheese coming out of the towers.”

The team makes 54 vats a day; each vat turns into 101 blocks of cheese. That’s around 5,454 blocks of cheese that are bagged and flipped by hand every day. Further down the line, the bags are sealed, run through a metal detector, over a scale, into an automatic boxer and finally are stacked.

“You spend ½ hour flipping, then ½ hour stacking, filling the machine or palletizing by hand,” Gale says. When things are up and running in the cheese room you’ll find a DMC operator running tests, two people working on the line, someone on the palletizer, a coordinator and finally a cheese maker in the neighboring vat room.

“We are like a huge family,” she says. “You learn to work with each other. I mean, this is your family and this is the way it is. And I don’t think we could do it without all the different personalities.”

"The science is forever changing."


From cheese maker to lab technician, Coreen Bitter has had a few jobs over the past 32 years at Kiel. Today she’s up in the lab.

Everything at the plant—the whey powder, the cheese, the milk samples—is tested.

“You have to recognize it’s a 24-hour, seven-day operation,” she says. “The farmers are milking and once that milk gets here something has to be done. If we start out with a five-person operation in the morning, at midnight we still need five people.”

“Once I got settled in, I realized that it wasn’t just a job, it was personal gratification,” Coreen says.

“And I learned how many people really had their hands in this one product. When I went to the store, it was like, ‘Wow! There’s really a lot of behind the scenes taking place.’”

"I am proud just knowing that the cheese made here wins awards. I think that’s just awesome."


About 4 years ago, Barbara Haas was looking through the newspaper ads and found an opening that caught her attention. She says she’s always liked processes, watching how things comes together, so cheese making has been a good fit.

Her official title is relief palletizer, but she fills in when needed, covering different jobs while her coworkers take their breaks. “When I first started, the DMC was the second or third job I learned. I thought, ‘That big thing! I have to operate that?’”

Barbara originally started in Denmark, before moving to Kiel a few months later. “It was really interesting and I wanted to stay in the cheese industry. I think it’s because of the quality—the way it’s made.”

"In 2007, we made this fantastic sharp Cheddar. 
Once I tasted it, I knew we were on to something really great."



This guy’s got organoleptic skills. As a senior cheese grader, Steve Schnell’s job is to taste cheese—block by block—and grade it to determine if it’s going to be mild, medium or sharp. Everyone hopes it will be the latter, since ageable cheese fetches a higher price.

The cheese is shipped to cold storage at the time it’s made. There it stays until the proper age is attained for a particular customer’s needs. This can be anywhere from two weeks to more than 10 years.

Grading starts as soon as seven days, but the best time is when the cheese is about six months old. Similar to how a wine connoisseur samples wine, Steve takes a small piece and moves the cheese around his palate. The entire time he’s tasting, smelling and even judging the texture of the cheese.

“It's kind of acquired taste because the tip of your tongue will get the sweet flavors and the back is more of the bitters and the acids” he says.

In case you were wondering, there’s a spit bucket involved.

Depending on the specs, Steve will slot the cheese to a certain customer. A part of Global Dairy Ingredients, the cheese at Kiel is sold to companies who then do their own packaging, selling it mostly under their own labels. Almost 100 percent of the production sells within 10 days. This means the plant has approximately 2.2 million pounds of cheese—between 8-10 days’ worth—on inventory at any given time. 

“My coworkers, they are all hardworking and as far as safety goes, they're always looking out for each other,” Steve says. “But the main thing is that they do take a lot of pride in their work, which is a big help when you're trying to make a consistent quality product for your customer. We’re always kind of tweaking our make, you know, trying new cultures to keep the quality up and possibly getting one that's even better than what we have.”

The plant receives 2.2 million pounds of milk each day from nearby Land O’Lakes member-owned farms. Steve says quality starts here. “You magnify the flavor ten times when it comes out in cheese. So you have to start with quality milk.”

Kiel’s pride in making a quality product certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. The team has won too many awards to list.

“We've won loads of world championships, U.S. championships, Wisconsin State Fair, Minnesota State Fair, that's kind of what we're known for,” Steve says. “There are a lot of different cheese plants in Wisconsin. When you can beat them out it's a good feeling. And then my job as a cheese grader, I actually pick out the blocks that we enter into these contests. It's a neat thing.”

I like things organized and clutter free.”


Standing in the back of the warehouse, Ann Duchow has just finished unloading a semi-truck. About seven trucks come in a day, and according to Ann, the drivers always have a good story to tell.

She's been with Land O’Lakes for 33 years and has had a lot of jobs. From packager and machine operator to working the line and flipping blocks in the cheese room, Ann’s done it. For the past 8 years or so, she’s been handling shipping and receiving at the whey plant.

It’s a bit of a solitary job, but that’s just how Ann likes it. “It’s a lot of variety which I love,” she says. “Loading and unloading trucks, driving the fork lifts and putting chemicals away. Being independent.”

Part of the job is to make sure the warehouse stays clean and organized. "When I first started here at the whey plant, they had a great big warehouse,” she says. “It was dusty and just filled with junk, old wooden boxes. A lady and I cleaned that whole warehouse. I think it took about a good month, but you know, it’s still clean!”

“Kiel’s employees in one word—dedicated.”


The Kiel cheese plant is in the midst of a major modernization project. Considering the plant was built in 1948 and has been in continuous operation ever since, it’s no surprise renovations were needed. The plant underwent significant updates in 1984 and 2000, but in 2013, construction crews broke ground on a major investment.

The first step before any other construction could start was moving the shipping dock to the north end of the plant. This was completed in 2014, giving the team more room and storage. Today, construction is ongoing and expected to continue throughout 2015.

The plant will be putting in the latest cheese vat technology, along with a renovated milk receiving area and utilities. This includes a new 4-bay milk intake, six milk silos, two new clean-in-place systems, a high temperature short time pasteurizer and eight 60k APT cheese vats, among other upgrades.

When everything is said and done, thanks to this multi-million dollar investment, Kiel will be able to handle 3.2 million pounds of milk daily.

“It’s a very exciting time for Land O’Lakes in Eastern Wisconsin!” says Kevin Schwartz, plant manager. “Kiel has a legacy of high-quality and award-winning, premium cheddar cheese. The plant in considered one of—if not the best—aged cheddar plants in the United States and maintains that recognition.”

“Land O’Lakes has built a plant with a cross-functional team that has thought through employee safety, food safety and its state-of-the-art equipment.”

Back by the loading docks, Sue Kiesow is explaining how she splits her time between working the cheese line and shipping. Like many people at Kiel, she has a few jobs and wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We're excited about the expansion to see where this factory is going to go, you know, to see what we're capable of putting out for aged Cheddar,” she says. “We're an older facility right now, but we're going to be all-new, so it's very exciting. To see that this little town of Kiel is going to make a lot more cheese—I’m just very proud that we're going to be working at a plant that's getting bigger and better.”