On-farm cheese plant gets Rural Economic boost
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Dec 22, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

On-farm cheese plant gets Rural Economic boost

St. Marys Journal Argus

Stew Slater

St. Marys Journal Argus

The inspiration for the cheeses may have come from the shadows of the Swiss Alps, where Hans and Jolanda Weber grew up before coming to Canada to establish a dairy farm and raise their two sons and a daughter in 1996. But when it came time to decide what to name the products and the brand name of a still-under-construction, on-farm dairy processing facility between Kirkton and St. Marys, at least some of the inspiration was definitely from the Webers’ adopted home community.

“The most aged cheese we’ll have is kind of like a Gruyere, and we’re calling it ‘Grand Trunk’,” explained Hans during a visit to the Kirkton Road farm earlier this week. Others — a similar hard cheese that will be aged six months instead of a full year; as well as a “semi-soft” and much milder option — will be named “Wild Creek” and “Homecoming.”

Late last week, it was announced by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs that the Webers, through their farm name Scenic Holsteins and targeted towards their St. Marys-inspired brand name Stonetown Artisan Cheese, will receive $146,260 in funding from the ministry’s Rural Economic Development Program. Scenic Holsteins was among 10 successful RED applicants from southwestern and midwestern Ontario outlined in the OMAFRA news release, and this follows up on a previous round of announced recipients from earlier this year.

“By providing economic development support at both the local and regional level, the Rural Economic Development program will help rural Ontario’s economy, and its communities, grow stronger,” stated OMAFRA Minister Jeff Leal, in the news release.

It’s clear from speaking with the Webers, however, that their main goal is simply to make good cheese.

Hans began thinking about making cheese from the milk of his family’s 170 cows several years ago, when their son Stefan first returned from studies at the University of Guelph and wanted to get involved in the business. Their other son, Roland, has since also joined the operation.

The idea sat on the back burner for a while, but the Webers were still keen observers as the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), which administers the supply of milk to processors throughout the province, gradually began opening up avenues for small-scale start-ups to serve what the organization perceived as growing niche markets in the cheese and dairy sector.

The Webers saw the same trend. And, eventually, with a set of regulations in place that included exemptions from the potentially costly requirement of purchasing industrial-scale “plant quota” for processing, they decided to take the plunge.

“We just thought it was an opportunity because a lot of products are imported. And we’ve got high-quality milk here in Canada, so we should be able to make them here,” Hans commented.

Inside a scrapbook chronicling the family’s work towards realizing their Stonetown Artisan Cheese — which they aim to begin producing by March, 2015, and selling through an on-farm store and other outlets in June — is a clipping from a summer, 2014, edition of the St. Marys Journal Argus. It’s from the “Looking Back” column, and it mentions how, 25 years ago, what was then the last cheese plant in Ontario using raw (unpasteurized) milk closed its doors in nearby Wellburn. According to Hans, when the decision was made by the family to pursue on-farm processing, they knew that raw milk would be the way to go.

“You can make these cheeses with pasteurized milk, but the cheese tends to get a little bitter with age, because the good bacteria that it needs have been killed off,” he explained.

As part of the growth of demand for niche cheeses, government regulators have also established guidelines for what must take place during the aging of cheeses made with raw milk. Stonetown Artisan won’t be the first cheese in Ontario to step back into the traditional raw milk void, but it will be one of the first — following strict cheese-aging rules.

But the Webers certainly aren’t complaining about the paperwork they had to fill out, or requirements they’ll face, either in the milking barn or in the still-under-construction cheese plant. Instead, they’re thankful for the assistance they received in crossing all the hurdles — from OMAFRA, the Township of Perth South, the County of Perth, and others.

“I think about it even now, when I’m milking my cows,” Hans smiles. “It’s nice to think that, some time before too long, we’ll be able to sell the products right from our cows to the consumers.”

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