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This article originally appeared in The Ontario Farmer, November 21, 2022
Reproduced with permission: © Copyright 2007, Sun Media Corporation

Sheep cheese comes of age


The very fact that Ontario could muster a panel of sheep cheese marketers surely signals a coming of age of the dairy sheep industry.

The panel, convened for the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium here, represented the full spectrum of processing, from artisanal to industrial.

Stew Cardiff, the majority owner of Shepherd Gourmet Dairy (SGD) near Tavistock, said he realized early on he had to make a decision to stay small or go big, that "there is no inbetween." Today, he's unapologetically industrial.

The industrial model offers volume and scale efficiencies, allows standardization of the product through blending, and can meet the demand of larger retailers, who "either want nothing - or a truckload."

The dairy consists of a 7,000-square-foot, federally licensed cheese plant that processes 30,000 litres a week of sheep milk - 80 per cent of Ontario's sheep milk production - and 40,000 litres of goat milk. A second plant is "in the works".

SGD is vertically integrated in that Cardiff also owns Cardiff Farms, north of Brussels, where he oversees the milking of 1000 ewes twice a day. It will be expanding to 1400 head next spring.

In addition, SDG receives milk from 12 good commercial-sized operations, including the Todd Sheep Company Inc., near Lucknow. It pays for milk based on components.

"We had zero sales in 2003," said Cardiff. Today, the planned growth is for sales commitments. SDG offers its own brand, as well as private label production, and tries not to tie up more than 20 per cent of its sales with any one customer.

Marketing and promotion are "low key....we let our cheese speak...and focus on operations."

The Ewenity Dairy Co-operative began in 2001 with five milk producers looking for a way to sell their product. Their first delivery was some truckloads of yogurt to The Big Carrot in Toronto.

After a couple of false starts, trying to build an on-farm cheese plant, Eric and Elizabeth Bzikot, and their son, Peter, set up a private processing plant Best Baa Dairy in an industrial mall in Fergus. It will process sheep milk solely for the eight members of the Co-op.

Best Baa has a 500-litre batch pasteurizer and the first batch of cheese was done May 28, 2007. Currently 50,000 to 60,000 litres of Ewenity's milk go into cheese and an almost equal volume into yogurt, though yogurt production is contracted out.

Co-op members average 100 ewes and meet annually to negotiate milk production commitments, based on marketing expectations.

"In the past two years, we've been able to sell all the milk produced," said Eric.

"At the minimum, we've been the leaders in sheep milk pricing in Ontario. Our aim has been to pay the producers as much as we can. We've been increasing the price of milk slowly."

Ewenity pays $1.60 a litre regardless of the composition, though Eric said he'd like to be able to pay a premium for additional cheese yield.

"Seventy-five to 80 per cent of all cheese sold is sold in the two month period precisely when we're not milking," Elisabeth said, so the division of labour works.

Customers tend to fall into two categories: health food consumers who perceive sheep's milk to be healthier and buy yogurts, feta and cream cheeses; and gourmands, who seek specialty cheeses like Ramembert and Eweda, as well as their raw milk versions, aged 60 days.

Ewenity uses farmers markets to establish a customer base, then starts to supply local shops in the area. Retailers now include 60 stores in the Greater Toronto Area, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and Collingwood.

Stephanie Diamant also got her foothold in the sheep cheese niche through a farmers market: the Creemore Farmer's Market.

Situated in "The Toronto Hamptons, Creemore offers an ideal demographic…They're wealthy, well-traveled and know what cheeses are. They don't worry about cheese priced at $30 to $60 a kilo," said Diamant.

Milky Way Farm's cheese sales increased from $9700 in 2001, to $17,500 in 2005 and returns soon outpaced the lamb sales by two to one.

"We're lucky here in Ontario. You can work in a small setting, in a plant licensed through the health unit. Small allows a venture to learn. It encourages creativity in the cheese marketplace that we often don't see. Small producers can drive the whole market it," said Diamant.

She's now learned enough that she's relocating to the Prince Edward County area, with her husband and their sheep, to become the cheesemaker for another new venture, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company.

Fifth Town's co-owner, Petra Cooper has a background in publishing, but was seduced by the idea of a rural business venture when she first visited a farm four years ago.

When her new "green" cheese plant is finished, complete with caves for aging, it will be the first of its kind in North America. Targeted at the environmentally conscious culinary tourist, Fifth Town is just "up the road" off a winery route that attracts 10,000 tourists a month.

The plan is to begin processing 5,000 to 7,000 litres of milk a week - fresh, local, whole milk from both sheep and goat milk, in small batches - and to triple in volume in five years or less, with a large percentage of direct sales.

"We are not industrial; we're not artisanal; I think we're a third way," said Cooper.

Six years ago Diamant was a lonely artisan cheese maker and one of a handful of shepherds who formed Ewenity Co-op to develop some markets together. Four years ago Shepherd's Gourmet began developing an industrial model for sheep cheese production. Three years ago Petra Cooper had a vision of a "lifestyle" cheese that was "clean" "green" and "fair". Who could have believed that the industry that struggled so hard for so long, would come so far, so fast?

© Copyright 2007, Ontario Farmer Unauthorized reproduction or Web posting prohibited.