What better time than the beginning of a new year in agriculture to celebrate an old tradition which seems to be making a bit of a comeback.
We're talking about community cheese factories which all but disappeared from Ontario's rural concessions over the past several decades, either going under due to economic stress or being gobbled up by big milk-processing conglomerates.
Of course, the evolution of farming and everything it depends on had a lot to do with it.
At one time, primitive transportation and storage methods made it impractical for dairy farmers to ship their milk very far, leading to the rise of the corner cheese factory as a convenient place to market it.
Modern milk marketing under DFO and its predecessor changed all that, making those small, family or co-op-owned factories dispensable. And, of course, the need to acquire expensive quota limited new entries into the market.
It's a tale told most recently in Of Curds and Whey by Ingleside's Rosemary Rutley tracing the history of cheese factories in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry counties which once contained more than 300 of them, a reality repeated across Eastern Ontario and beyond.
They're all gone now, with only big boys Kraft at Ingleside and Parmalat at Winchester representing the commercial cheese-making industry in those counties. The authentic working seasonal cheese factory at Upper Canada Village gives us a taste of what it was like in the 1860s.
It was Parmalat which, after absorbing Balderson Cheese near Perth, finalized the transfer of manufacturing operations from there to Winchester, keeping the name as one of its leading brands.
Recently, Parmalat sold off the Balderson outlet which, happily, continues to operate under new ownership and continues to deal in the famous cheese of the same name.
Perhaps the greatest single success story from the old days of Eastern Ontario cheese-making is St. Albert where, not only does the century-old co-op continue to survive, it's absolutely thriving, ringing up $25-million in annual sales of curds and other varieties.
St. Albert management has just opened its first co-op controlled outlet away from the farming village it calls home, this one in Orleans ... Cheddar et cetera. If it works, similar stores could follow in high volume markets such as Toronto and Montreal.
All of this preamble to get us to the point of the column... I mean, one does have to set the scene, right?
Thanks to demand for specialty products not necessarily manufactured from cow's milk, community cheese-making is enjoying a resurgence, with some half dozen plans for small factories now in the works. Two of the projects are in the Central/Eastern end of the province.
In Prince Edward County, Petra Cooper is finalizing plans for a 3,400 square-ft. artisan cheese plant on her 20-acre property. To include retail space and a patio, cheeses from Cooper's operation will be made with sheep and goat's milk
She'll hire a cheesemaker to specialize in four or five varieties, with production expected to begin in the spring of 2007.
In Glengarry County, Margaret Morris, who's been on the scene for years providing cheese-making courses and selling manufacturing equipment and ingredients for the home and business, will begin construction of a 5,000 square-ft. cheese plant in Alexandria this spring. Morris expects to start production by late in the year.
Processing cow's milk, the factory will be styled like a Pennsylvania-Dutch barn. Specializing in unique cheeses concocted from Morris recipes, it'll include a retail outlet and viewing platform.
Morris says consumer demand due to increasing awareness of European-style specialty cheese is fueling the resurgence. Those who rely on cheese as an important part of their diets want more variety and want it Canadian-made if possible.
Whatever the reasons, it's uplifting to see this once dying rural art coming around again.