ONTARIO — Once rare as hen’s teeth, there are now 20 farms processing and selling their own cow-milk dairy products in Ontario. While still out of the ordinary, it is a milestone number and an increase of 3 from a year earlier — out of the 3,270 milk producers on the Dairy Farmers of Ontario roster.
Twelve of these 20 operators are located in Western Ontario. And the trend points to even more DFO members taking the entrepreneurial leap into dairy processing and self-marketing.
In addition to the 20 farms already licensed as dairy processors, another 9 have applied to join the club, up from 7 applicants a year ago, according to DFO. Taken together, this group of 29 approved or pending license applications is double the 14 on-farm dairy processors operating in the province a decade ago, a number that remained static until recently. The extra growth and renewed interest has occurred in just the last four years, according to DFO.
Not content to produce milk for bulk pickup exclusively, the involved farmers turn their cows’ output into a variety of products that they market and sell themselves — everything from cheese and yogurt, to non-homogenized fluid milk and kefir.
It’s been quite the evolution for the supply-managed sector. At one time, DFO and its predecessor organization, the Milk Marketing Board of Ontario, didn’t envision a pathway for producers to independently process and market some or all of their herds’ milk. There was no choice but to keep their heads down and collectively ship pooled milk for a centralized system catering to the established processors. Things started to change in the 1990s, and as the local food movement gathered steam, DFO launched “Project Farmgate” in 2010 to promote on-farm milk processing and sales of boutique farm-based dairy brands.
But why take the leap when DFO will otherwise pick up a farmer’s milk for the regular pool, never to be thought of again?
Marja DeBoer-Marshal of Golspie Dairy in Woodstock gave several reasons: “To add value to our milk, to allow for additional on-farm jobs, and for the opportunity to be creative by getting to transform our milk into products that we thought were missing from our local market.”
The 32-head Holstein herd at the Golspie farm supplies the milk that DeBoer-Marshal and her husband, Laurence Marshal, sell in both chocolate and plain flavours after processing through their pasteurization equipment. Since 2022, customers have been buying the farm’s milk through a fill-it-yourself on-farm vending machine. The farm also offers bottled milk and crowdie cheese.
Waterloo-area dairy farmer Jim Eby got into processing milk from his family’s 60-head Guernsey herd in 2012. In Eby’s case, he arranges processing off-site with two co-packing contractors. They turn his milk — as well as the milk from a couple of neighbouring Guernsey herds — into a line of Eby Manor dairy products retailed at the farm store.
It was an appreciation for the Guernsey breed, and a desire to revive a Guernsey-only milk brand, that drove him into the processing realm. “I grew up in a day when some plants were doing breed-specific milk, and my dad actually switched to Guernseys to get into that market,” he recalled. “I’ve always had a passion to see Guernsey milk made available again. People really do notice the difference.”
Becoming a processor has meant the farm can earn an extra premium on its Guernsey milk featuring the more digestible A2 protein, he said.
Not only does it help the economic viability of a breed that doesn’t produce the same volume as Holsteins, “it’s also a means of keeping everyone in the family on the farm,” Eby added. He explained that there’s not much opportunity to expand the operation in a conventional sense. “This way, we can benefit from value-added, cut out the middleman, and sell a niche product.”
Danielle deVos, maker of a variety of cheeses at her family’s Oakwood farm since 2021, has found it gratifying to directly serve her community’s desire for local food.
Getting into processing was also a wise business decision for the farm, she added, given the challenges in the dairy industry. “I think in order to keep going in the coming years as a dairy producer, this is what it’s going to come to. You might need to have on-farm processing of some sort, just because it’s getting harder to buy quota and everything else.”
She advised producers truly interested in joining the processors’ club to waste no time. Going from application to facility start-up took her two and a half years. “Start the process as soon as you start thinking about it,” deVos said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Dairy farmer Adam van Bergeijk, co-owner of Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg and processing since 2012, advises aspiring dairy processors to “think well before you start. DFO is not the most helpful organization.”
Belmont-area dairy farmer Kris Pettit, processing since last year at Mistyglen Creamery, warned that entering the processing field will involve a project “much larger than you could ever think it would be.”
Pettit advised that project costs will “greatly increase” through the planning and building phases. “The learning curve is substantial and expect many mistakes as you work through the processes,” she added. “Another piece of advice is to be passionate and definitive about what products you are passionate about, this will show through into your end product.”
The added work of processing and retailing their milk — on top of running the farm — is “exhausting” and a “monumental task,” she conceded. “Ensuring you have lots of help, if possible, will save some sanity. This was not an option for us and therefore we wear every hat … the silver lining would be you learn every aspect of the business as you grow.”
Below are the 20 Ontario dairy farms that process their own cow’s milk into their own dairy labels.
Bushgarden Farmstead Cheese
Processing from a combined Holstein and Brown Swiss herd since 2011
Owner: Nigel Smith
Products: cheese made from raw milk
Eby Manor Farm
Processing Guernsey milk since 2012
Owner: Jim and Ruth Eby, and Ben and Sheri Eby
Products: bottled A2 milk, cream, Balkan-style yogurt, cheddar and havarti
Processing since 2022 from a Holstein herd
Owner: Marja DeBoer-Marshall and Laurence Marshall
Products: bottled milk and crowdie cheese, also milk poured from a vending machine.
Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese
Processing from the Holstein herd at Friesvale Farms
Owner: Shep Ysselstein
Products: 18 kinds of cheese, including brie and Gouda
Limestone Organic Creamery
Processing from a Jersey herd since 2012
Owners: Francis, Kathie, Patrick, and Olivia Groenewegen
Products: cream, whipped cream and bottled milk
Little Brown Cow Dairy Farm & Store
Processing from a Jersey herd since 2016
Owners: Jenny Butcher and Wes Kuntz
Products: curd, cheese and milk-on-tap
Processing from a Holstein herd since 2012
Owners: Adam and Hannie Van Bergeijk
Location: New Hamburg
Products: several Gouda cheeses and a spreadable cheese called ‘Quark.’
Processing from the herd at Mistyglen Holsteins since 2022
Owners: Kris Pettit
Products: cheese curd, yogurt and bottled fluid milk
Mapleton’s Organic Dairy Farm
Processing from a Holstein herd
Owners: Korb Whale and Kelly Forster
Products: ice cream and frozen yogurt
Processing from the herd at Jalon Jerseys since 2012
Owner: John Miller
Products: ice cream, bottled milk, whipping cream and half-and-half cream
Pinehedge Farms Inc.
Processing from a Holstein herd since 1994
Owner: Josef Heinzle
Location: St. Eugene
Products: kefir, yogurt and sour cream
Sargent Family Dairy
Processing from a Jersey herd
Owners: Tim and Sharyn Sargent
Products: bottled milk and a selection of artisanal cheese and curds
Saugeen Country Dairy
Processing from the Holstein herd since 1994
Owner: Ingo Huesing
Products: yogurt and kefir
Sheldon Creek Dairy
Processing since 2012 from a Holstein herd
Owner: Haanview Farms, John and Bonnie den Haan
Products: bottled whole A2 milk, yogurt, kefir and labneh
Slate River Dairy
Processing since 2015
Owner: Riverbend Farm – Jim and Wilma Mol
Products: bottled whole, skim and cocoa milk, yogurt, cheese and kefir
Stonetown Artisan Cheese
Processing since 2014
Owner: Scenic Holsteins, Hans and Jolanda Weber
Location: St. Mary’s
Products: hand-crafted alpine-style cheeses
Thunder Oak Cheese Farm
Processing since 1995 from a Holstein herd
Owner: Walter Schep
Products: variety of Gouda cheeses
Upper Canada Creamery
Processing from a mixed-breed dairy herd since 2017
Owners: New Care Farms, Josh and Ellen Biemond
Products: yogurt, cheese, curds, frozen yogurt, ice cream and full-fat bottled milk
Processing from a Holstein herd at Vosbrae Farms Ltd. since 2021
Owner: Danielle deVos
Products: a variety of farmstead Dutch cheeses
Processing since 2021 from a Holstein herd
Owner: Walker family
Products: bottled A2 milk