by SUSAN MANN
It’s always great to be recognized with an award but the added bonus of the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence is it “comes with a pay cheque,” says the owner of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese.
Shep Ysselstein picked up $5,000 as one of 10 southwestern Ontario winners of the award for his new cheese-making venture. A ceremony was held Aug. 29 in Ridgetown near Chatham for the recipients.
The other winners include: the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association for its Ontario Corn Fed Beef program; Auvergne Farms Limited/Jakeman’s Maple Products of Beachville; Forest Glen Herb Farm & Bed and Breakfast of Lambton Shores; Glenwillow Farms of Strathroy; Great Northern Hydroponics of Kingsville; L.M. Bolle and Sons of Norwich; Randy Lambrecht of Bothwell; S. Eric Richter of London; and Stratus Hydroponics International Inc. of Windsor.
Ysselstein founded his company two and a half years ago and has only been making cheese for 13 months in a plant located near his family’s Woodstock-area dairy farm. Ysselstein’s family operation, Friesvale Farms, milks 110 Holstein cows. Milk from about a quarter of them or 20 to 30 cows goes into three kinds of lesser-known varieties of Swiss-style cheeses. The semi-soft, semi-firm and hard cheeses are available at the plant’s retail outlet and at local stores and restaurants. He also sells some product to distributors that sell to other cheese stores and specialty food stores across southern Ontario.
“I try to focus on cheeses that are not run-of-the-mill but they’re not so far out there that some people who are a bit timid to try different things would be scared of them,” he says.
When he set up the plant, Ysselstein emphasized the educational aspect of cheese making, cows, milk production and farming. “In the cheese plant itself I have these big windows that you can see the whole production area,” he says, noting visitors to the plant can go on a tour and watch a video on the process.
Ysselstein spent the summer of 2008 in Switzerland learning how to make cheese, did internships at cheese plants in New York and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island plus took some week-long classes in Guelph and Vermont.
Wanting to start his own business and visiting an on-farm cheese plant in Northern Ontario led him to cheese making, first on a kitchen stove and then using a stainless steel steam kettle in the farm’s milk house. “That way I could actually try different things,” he says.
Jim Clark, executive director of the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association/Ontario Corn Fed Beef program, says they’re very happy to have won. “We see it as a great honour and we see this as a prestigious award.”
The Ontario Corn Fed Beef program has been going for quite a few years and “we felt we’d come far enough and done enough stuff that we would put in” for the award, he says.
The corn fed beef program supplies 246 Loblaws stores and has 4,700 cattle a week from across Ontario coming into the program. The cattle numbers are currently good but “as we get into next spring the cattle numbers are going to be a little bit tighter,” he says.
He explains that the cattle herd across North America is declining because the drought has made it more expensive to feed animals. Cow-calf producers are getting out of the business due to higher grain prices. In addition, more pastures are being plowed up and switched into cash crops. That’s happening in areas where “we’ve never seen it before,” he notes.
“When you’re running a brand, it takes a certain amount of cattle to do it,” he says.
Susan Murray, spokesperson for the provincial agriculture ministry, says of the 50 regional awards being handed out across Ontario this summer and fall, 35 have been presented so far. All 50 regional winners will be considered for additional awards being given at the Premier’s Summit on Agi-Food in October where five Premier’s awards, a Minister’s award and three Leaders in Innovation awards will be handed out.
Since 2007, 285 awards under the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence program have been given out recognizing innovations from producers, processors and agri-food organizations. BF