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Gay Lea buys northern Ontario cheesemaker

Thornloe Cheese to become part of dairy foods co-op

Ontario’s first producer of verified-grass-fed butter and cheeses is set to become part of the province’s biggest dairy co-operative.

Gay Lea Foods said Monday it has completed a deal to buy Thornloe Cheese from its current owner, Guelph-based dairy genetics firm EastGen, for an undisclosed sum.

Thornloe Cheese on its website says the business takes in over three million litres of milk per year to make cheese, curds and butter and “remains an outlet for local dairy producers who wish to ship to a northern Ontario location.”

The cheese business was founded in 1940 by producer Rene Laframboise at Thornloe, a small northeastern Ontario community about 175 km north of North Bay, and has changed hands several times since then.

It was picked up in 1978 by Balderson Cheese, which in 1982 became part of Ault Foods, which in 1997 was bought up by Parmalat, which went on to make plans to shut down the Thornloe business. Dairy A.I. co-operative Gencor stepped in to buy Thornloe in 2007.

The cheesemaker came to EastGen in 2011, when the genetics company was formed through a merger of Gencor with Eastern Breeders of Kemptville, Ont.

Thornloe now employs about 30 people, serving wholesale customers including retail and foodservice buyers in northern Ontario and Quebec. It also operates its own central retail store in its home community.

The cheese company, Gay Lea said, is “celebrated for its specialty cheeses,” among which are the first to be made with milk sourced from Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s (DFO) Verified Grass Fed program.

More recently, Thornloe noted, it began developing new cheeses for ethnic markets as well as for the “emerging functional food market.”

“Thornloe Cheese has a long and storied history in northern Ontario and holds a special place in the hearts of northern dairy farmers and consumers alike,” Gay Lea Foods chair Rob Goodwill said in Monday’s release.

“We are pleased to keep Thornloe Cheese in the hands of a wholly Canadian dairy farmer-owned co-operative and help keep northeastern Ontario’s rich agricultural legacy alive.”

The Mississauga-based Gay Lea dairy farmers’ co-op has been in both acquisition and expansion modes in recent years. It stretched its membership to Manitoba in 2017 when it partnered with Vitalus Nutrition to set up a milk processing operation in Winnipeg.

Gay Lea in September this year also bought North York, Ont.-based Western Creamery from General Mills. Other recent acquisitions include Alberta Cheese Co. in 2017 and Stirling Creamery and Black River Cheese in 2016.

The co-operative in 2016 also announced plans to set up a nutraceutical-grade dairy ingredients hub and research and development facility in its home province. — Glacier FarmMedia Network

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