By Patrick Meagher
SMITHS FALLS — Cait White is one of many new farmers breaking into agriculture. They are all young, educated, enthusiastic, idealistic and wear pants with shallow pockets.
She grew up on her father Bill Dobson’s part-time beef farm outside Smiths Falls. There was no full-time operation to inherit or work-to-own and no bundle of money to buy land. She and her husband Kyle earned science degrees at Queen’s University and knew they didn’t want to live in the city and they didn’t want to commute to the city for work.
She loved going to farmers’ markets and “as a consumer we were getting more interested in local foods,” she said. “We needed to invent a job if we didn’t want to commute and there were not a lot of people making cheese.”
They liked the idea of sheep dairy farming because you don’t have to pay for the quota to get into the business. “We didn’t have the money to get into cow’s milk,” she said.
They started with seven ewes and one ram in 2010 when they moved back to her parents’ farm and introduced equipment for making cheese the following year. They have been making cheese and producing wool, selling yarn and blankets ever since. They bought their own 50-acre farm in 2014 and are now milking 64 head and found that’s the sweet spot. It’s about all their equipment can handle in the double-eight parallel parlour and about all they can handle physically. They use raw milk and need to allow 60 days for curing before selling.
With no employees, she said that they are each putting in 90-hour weeks in the summer and 40 in the winter. They lamb out in March and April and milk from May to October so “it’s nice not to have to milk in February.” They make their own hay, milk the ewes, manage the herd, make the cheese, process 400 lb. of wool per year, 8,700 litres of milk for making cheese and sell lamb meat at the only year-round Ottawa Farmers’ Market every Sunday at Lansdowne Park. “If we didn’t do all that, it would be more civilized,” she said.
White sells the cheese from coolers on a table in front of their banner that reads “MILKHOUSE FARM & DAIRY” and, playing to the urban consumer, advertises that “cheese is made by hand in small batches using unpasteurized milk.” It’s an attractive booth near the entrance and she is delighted that her wool duvets “are selling like hot cakes.” A crib duvet runs for $95. A Queen-size duvet costs $299. They sell 150 grams of Feta cheese for $9.50.
White said she knows of only a handful of Eastern Ontario sheep farms selling cheese. But interest is rising as some farmers selling meat look at dairy as a way to bring their children into the operation, said Ontario Sheep Farmers general manager Jennifer MacTavish. She added that demand for goat and lamb products is also rising due to an increase in immigrants and increase in travel that has broadened interest in new foods.
Like so many young people carving out new niche markets for themselves, the Whites are pioneers, their energy and enthusiasm carrying them a long way. They are considering adding a few more cheeses but it’s already more than full-time work and not quite full-time income. Said Cait: “We’re getting there.”