Navigating the ups and downs of a local industry slowly on the rise

For those of us who love cheese, each taste of our favourite type, whether that be a pungent gorgonzola or a heavenly spread of the creamiest Brie, is nigh on a religious experience. In fact, a study released last year found cheese to be potently addictive due to its ingredients triggering the brain’s opioid receptors. How wonderful, then, that in the past five years there’s been something of a surge in the number of cheese makers in our fair province, meaning more delicious local cheeses to sample and to bring us closer to culinary nirvana.

Admittedly, compared to other provinces, we don’t have much of a cheese industry to speak of, yet. There are currently nine cheese makers in Nova Scotia, each of whom creates a product different from the others and carves a niche in this small market. I spoke with four of them to find out what compels them to make cheese, and to hear about their experiences of doing so in Nova Scotia.

Lyndell Findlay

For the Love of Cheese

Lyndell Findlay is cheesemaker and owner of Blue Harbour Cheese, an urban cheese plant set up right in Halifax’s north end at the end of Robie Street. After working with the United Nations for many years, Findlay was ready for a change. “It just seemed to come to me that I should make blue cheese because I love it,” she says. “Also looking into what everyone else was doing in the province, and I didn’t want to make anything similar. No one was making blue cheese apart from That Dutchman’s Dragon Breath, and it’s turned out quite well.”

Having a deep love of cheese seems to the motivating factor for most people making cheese in Nova Scotia, and given the levels of complication involved in setting up shop, it couldn’t be because they saw a way to make some easy money. (More on that later.)

Ron Muise, who runs Wandering Shepherd Cheese, was also looking for a career change when he started to consider cheese making. Born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, he’d worked as a chef in Europe for many years, before coming back to Halifax. One day he walked into a coffee shop, ran into a girl he knew from high school and ended up moving back to Cape Breton and living on her grandmother’s farm. In 2011 he started making ewe milk cheese and has no regrets. “It has to be part of your soul because those 3 am mornings down the barn during lambing when it is minus 20, you have to love it,” he says.

And Now for Something Completely Different

One of the barriers to becoming a cheesemaker is the cow’s milk quota system, which makes it very difficult to milk cows and make cheese with milk from your own farm. This is why many cheese makers, and not just those in this province, choose to make a product using goat, ewe or even water buffalo milk. Because these species of animals fall under different legislation, it’s easier to navigate the rules as a small producer.

When Muise started milking sheep up in Cape Breton, the locals thought he was nuts. “They said, ‘You’re gonna milk wha’?’ I had a 90-year-old man pull up a stool and sit there to watch me, shaking his head, and saying, ‘I never knew!’” he says. Being the first ewe milk cheese maker in the province has meant that Muise has had to educate people about his product. But, he says, that is always fun. “Ewe’s milk cheese has a flavour profile that tends to be a little more mellow and rich, so everybody might be apprehensive about it, but once they try it, they say it’s really good.”

The cheeses that Muise makes have become incredibly popular, and when I spoke with him he had already sold out for the year (he doesn’t make cheese over the winter, as you only milk sheep for six months of the year). Since 2011, he has honed his craft and gone from making 20 different cheeses and hawking them at farmers’ markets to just making three types and selling them wholesale to restaurants or people who buy whole wheels.

Likewise, Desiree Gordon and her husband Stefan Kirkpatrick chose to take a different direction with their cheese, using water buffalo milk to produce mozzarella and ricotta. “We went to this because of the cow milk quota system and because we didn’t want to compete with the other goat milk cheese makers,” explains Gordon. “People thought we were nuts starting this, and probably still do,” she says. Their business, West Dublin Buffalo Dairy (in West Dublin, near LaHave), only recently got its license, and as of writing, they’ve been selling cheese for three weeks.

Incidentally, not using cow milk in your cheese means that you’re creating a product well suited to people who can’t usually handle dairy, as goat and sheep milk are often better tolerated. Cheryl Hiltz, of Ran-Cher Acres, who has been making goat milk cheese with her husband Randy for the past 30 years, says that meeting people and seeing the happiness that their products bring has been wonderful. “One man we met hadn’t been able to have any dairy for 10 years, and we got great pleasure from seeing him be able to enjoy our products.”

Starting Up Ain’t Easy

Being pioneers in any industry means that you’re going to have to test the rules in order to get going, and that’s certainly something our local cheese makers have had to do. Way back when Ran-Cher Acres was starting out, there were no other goat milk cheesemakers. “The inspectors told us to just put it all together and see if it passes,” says Hiltz. “And we’d never done it before, so there was a lot that we had to learn on the job.”

When Muise wanted to make sheep milk cheese, he had to work with provincial regulators to change some parts of the dairy act. “They kind of lumped us in with goats, so we needed to alter that because they’re a different species,” he says, adding that it is very challenging in Nova Scotia to get into the cheese business and that there’s not a lot of government support.

Gordon says that getting their license to produce and sell their product has been challenging. “Stefan built the barn where the animals live and built the cheese factory, and complying with regulations on a small scale is really intense, and every time you think you’re done you find out there’s something else,” she says. “By the time we got our license
I was so beaten down that I wasn’t even excited anymore.”

Setting up a cheese plant in the middle of Halifax’s north end provided its own set of challenges for Findlay. First off, she needed to convert the cottage she’d bought into a commercial building, which required a fair amount of hoop jumping. The cheese inspector was very helpful, but the process of getting the conversion done and licensing took time. “Once
I was up and running it was quite easy then because I’d had nine months to do all my research and development on my cheese, to get my marketing material ready and source out my customers,” she says.

Straight out of the gate, Blue Harbour Cheese was a hit and was soon featured on the menu at pretty much every top restaurant in the HRM. It was stocked in many independent stores, too, and even Sobeys after a lucky meeting with the national cheese trainer for the company who was writing a book on Canadian cheese makers.

The good news is that with more cheesemakers come more experienced regulators, which means the process will only get easier for new people wishing to go into the cheese business in Nova Scotia.

Becoming a Big Cheese (Maker)

Whilst the cheese being produced here is fantastic, and it has been very well received, there are limits to how much locally produced cheese you can sell, and that is going to limit growth for these producers.

Says Muise: “Making cheese isn’t that hard. You can make a batch of cheese in six hours, and I can make 100 kilos of cheese in one batch, and if you can do that every day, great. But the market for that much and selling that much in Nova Scotia is hard because you don’t have many independent retailers that have the freedom to be purchasing from a provincially inspected facility.”

As great as it is that Findlay’s cheese is on the shelves of Sobey’s stores, she can only sell cheese in stores that she can deliver to. The reason: because she isn’t federally regulated, her cheese isn’t allowed to go through Sobey’s warehouses or distribution systems. In order to grow as she would like, Findlay needs that federal regulation. “I need to get out of province with my sales,” she says. “Other cheese makers here may not if they’re happy with their animals and their small sales. They’ve got other sources of income and rural ventures where I don’t.”

Findlay’s market is limited here because her product is rather niche. “I make blue cheese, and not everybody likes blue cheese,” she says. “I tell people that this is my mission to convert Canadians to blue cheese, starting out with a nice mild one, which I have, and people seem to like, and then easing them into something a little stronger, nice blues but not burn your throat blues. You’ve got to ease people in because every second person you talk to will say they don’t like blue cheese.”

And although cheese making may be easy, and fun, our cheesemakers face the same challenges that other local producers do from weather-related issues and stupid twists of fate that cost tons of cash they don’t have. “We’ve had some major challenges,” says Muise. “Lost our walk-in cooler twice, both times around Christmas time when they were both full of cheese, which we couldn’t sell due to regulations, though the dog was very happy. But you carry on and look to next year.”

As Findlay says, running your own business is pretty stressful, but it’s a different kind of stress from the type that she had in her last job with the UN that saw her posted in Myanmar on the Bangladesh border. “I’m not worried about being shot at or kidnapped now,” she laughs. “My work has always been completely different. Producing something like this isn’t something I’ve ever done before, so I’m finding this really fantastic.”