Old Cheese in the New World

01 Apr 2010

You can feel the brisk mountain air in every bite and may even find yourself yodeling out loud. Raw, organic cheeses are made on-farm at the Kootenay Alpine Cheese Company, nestled in the shadow of the Skimmerhorn mountain range in British Columbia, Canada. The cheeses are of the highest quality, fetching a broad range of clients, from outlets like Amis du Fromage in Vancouver, specialty retail like Planet Organic in Calgary, and people looking to sample quality local product at farmers markets throughout BC.

Denise and Wayne Harris bought the dairy farm near Creston from Wayne’s stepparents 15 years ago when Wayne decided to leave the lumber company he was working for in Regina. “Passion drove us to it,” says Wayne from his farm office. The couple both studied agriculture at Olds College in the 1980s and Wayne’s grandparents were dairy farmers in Creston. “It’s in our blood.”

It has been a premeditated long journey to processing their own cheese. “It wasn’t until 2008 that we were financially stable enough to build the cheesemaking facility (fromagerie), but sample production started in 2004,” says Wayne. The Harrises’ entire operation is certified organic – the herd, feed, fromagerie, and crops. The entire operation must use only inputs approved by their certifying body, Pacific Agriculture Certification Society. The herd is made up of 80 Holsteins, with a few Guernseys and crosses with Normandy, Guernseys, and Swedish Reds.

Grazing and feed
All cows are intensively grazed during summer, from young stock to milking cows, on pasture located on the farm, and in winter the cows are fed in the barn. Most of the feed is produced on-farm, where they grow hay for forage and some grain, with off-farm sourcing when needed, such as flax.

Flax is said to balance the cows’ reproductivity efficiency, resulting in fewer embryo losses, according to anectdotal and controlled research studies cited in Ameriflax for the Dairy Industry magazine.

“Ruminants are not designed to digest grains,” explains Wayne, “We have found that our cattle develop subclinical acidosis caused by grain consumption leading to a lowered immune system. When we feed them less grain, many disease issues fade away. Conventional dairy farmers always ask ‘What do you do for mastitis?’ I tell them, we feed less grain.” Wayne reckons that even mainstream dairy will move to forage feeds versus grain because grain prices are so high.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture (August 2009), studies reveal that there may be human health benefits to consuming dairy products from grass fed herds. There are more beneficial fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid in grass fed dairy products, but flavor is the lead reason consumers choose grass fed dairy products, because of their texture, flavor and other characteristics.

At Kootenay Alpine, cows are fed eight pounds of grain per day in summer and 12 pounds per day in winter. The feed is composed of mixed grains of barley, oats, peas and flax, plus a mineral mix. They start with a small premix of microingredients, but 70 percent of the minerals are their own blend, combining products such as kelp, a natural form of chelated minerals with about 60 different trace minerals, and garlic, a natural immune system booster. Cows also get probiotics and yeast which helps maintain a healthy rumen and microflora in the rumen.
They intercrop grain with peas, do not separate them, and swath at the correct stage of maturity. Wayne says that cows get enough protein from forages of alfalfa and grass if the crops are harvested correctly. The non-structural carbohydrates (sugars) are higher in the afternoon. They try to swath in the afternoon when the sugars are photosynthetically peaked (about 3 p.m.).

The heifers are rotated onto fresh paddocks every 24 hours and cows every 12 hours. “We always give them a fresh paddock in afternoon, because they graze more in the evenings,” explains Wayne. They are pastured on perennial rye grass and clover.

A patchwork of leased land
The Harrises own 100 acres and lease another 400 acres through six-year leases in the area from 20 different parcels and 19 different landlords. The home 100 acres at the dairy is in pasture, with the hay of alfalfa and grass, grown on the leased land.

“It’s a patchwork, but it is the only way to get the land base we need,” says Harris about an area where good farm land is in small parcels of about 20 acres, and prices average over $10,000 per acre. Speculative real estate prices are also squeezing the prices of farm land.

The Harrises do not make or use silage, because silage is an issue with the kind of hard aged Alpine cheese they are making. Silage can contain clostridial bacteria which are detrimental to cow health and the cheesemaking process. “This is bad for the kind of cheese development we do,” explains Wayne. “I understand that in some countries in the EU, farmers are paid not to use silage if their milk goes to making these kind of cheeses.”

The cows are pastured out until the beginning of November when it becomes too wet and cold. “We usually run out of weather before we run out of grass,” says Wayne about the pastures on alluvial heavy clay soil.

The barn is a freestyle open barn with straw and shavings for bedding which are changed daily. There are open individual sleeping stalls-the cattle choose where they want to sleep. The manure, straw, and shavings are cleared with a scraper on a small tractor, and composted as per organic requirements. It is then spread on fields that need fertilizer based on their soil test results.

Milking and breeding

The Harrises use a double six milking parlour, where cows are milked twice per day by hired help producing up to 30 litres per day. They are breeding cattle to manipulate the protein components for the cheese. The Swedish Red produce higher components than Holstein as do Normandy.

Ultimately they are creating cattle that are disposed to produce milk from less grain, do better on forage and are heat tolerant. They need a cow that is better than Holstein to deal with heat stress, in pastures with no shade in an area where the summer temperatures can reach over 35 degrees Celsius. Holsteins have low heat tolerance, however, Wayne finds that when they get less grain, they are less heat stressed. Through natural selection, and a herd that has fewer Holsteins, the herd as a whole is better heat stressed than it wasd 15 years ago. The herd size remains static, and is a good herd size for organic production, which requires that cows are pastured out.

Wayne says that going organic requires a change in mentality and creates new challenges. Switching from supply management where the milk is produced, picked up in a milk truck and forgotten about to producing, processing and marketing value-added products on farm is the biggest part of the curve and they are still in that curve. Supplying and sourcing markets is a constant challenge and time consuming.

Creston is quite remote from markets, and the Harrises do not have time for farmers markets between the demands of the farm and fromagerie. They have been working on doing cold sales calls in the fall with the goal of selling to retailers. Their brightest market is Calgary, to retail outlets like Amaranth and Planet Organic. The cheese is shipped to Calgary by van operated by a group of producers from the Kootenays.

Last summer all three of the Harris childredn spent the summer helping on the farm on their breaks from university, and the oldest daughter is interested in the cheese side of the business.

Markets and products
Before embarking on making cheese, the Harrises did their market research. They talked to other BC cheesemakers to insure that they would not infringe on markets, and discovered that there is a lot of room in the marketplace for Alpine cheeses.

Much of the cheese is made in summer when the cows are in pasture, following the European tradition of making cheese when the flavours are most robust. “Summer cheeses produce the best flavour attributes,” explains Wayne.
The cheese is handcrafted following the tradition of artisan cheese-makers, and is made using only the raw milk from the certified organic herd. The Harrises prefer raw milk for flavour. “Pasteurisation loses flavour and destroy a lot of natural enzymes,” says Wayne.

Each cheese is carefully aged in order to develop rich, complex flavours that are unique to their milk, farm, and region. They do not use plastic for aging. Cheeses are aged naturally in an aging cave. The Alpindon is smeared with a bacterial linen that develops the rind and imparts flavour on the cheese.

The Fromagerie is open 3 days per week year round. In winter they process two vats of milk (1,000 litres each) per week, and in summer, they process between six and eight vats.

In the heart of the Kootenays, this dairy shows commitment and dedication to quality and is both sustainable and viable and is a stellar example of the future of small dairies.

Pamela Irving is a Toronto based journalist, who established Living Communications for ethical and communications and stories [email protected]

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