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Processing own milk has challenges and rewards

The quota system doesn’t impact a producer’s ability to make the leap into processing, but having enough time to pursue a new business does

What does it take to make a go of on-farm dairy processing? A good plan, a lot of time and plenty of hard work.

“That’s why I look so tired,” joked Lisa Dyck, owner of Cornell Creme.

Speaking at the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba’s annual conference in Winnipeg, Dyck recounted her journey to becoming the first dairy producer-processor in Manitoba.

The specialty ice-cream business is doing well, but Dyck said she understands why so few dairy producers choose to make the leap to processor.

Lisa Dyck

Lisa Dyck
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“There are probably a lot of dairy farmers like ourselves, already indebted on their farm, and then to start a second business is a lot,” she said. “And secondly, the big issue is time. I don’t think a lot of dairy farmers have the time to do this.”

The final hurdle is a shortage of processing facilities, said Dyck, who makes her product in a leased facility at the University of Manitoba.

She hopes to make a move to her own processing facility in the future, and noted that at one time there was discussion around building a microprocessor in Manitoba and making it available to producers.

“Which I think we still need because the cost of capital equipment is so great, and that scares off a lot of people,” she said.

Hetty Smyth didn’t have to worry about finding a processing location, but making the move into cheese, butter and yogurt didn’t come without big changes.

Hetty Smyth

Hetty Smyth
photo: Shannon VanRaes

“Our family started out with it 24 years ago, so when my parents started to retire, even though I was on a different career path, I couldn’t see that shut down, it had always been a part of the farm, so that’s why my husband and I decided to take it over,” said Smyth, whose family comes from a long line of Dutch cheese makers.

Today the New Brunswick producer-processor sees milk travel a mere 200 feet from her brother’s dairy barn to her processing facility. It’s a proximity no longer allowed for new processors, but she added that the existing facility was grandfathered in under the old regulations.

She said there were some questions about how the cheese makers would fit into the quota system when Armadale Farm Products was first launched, but said it was nothing that couldn’t be ironed out.

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semi truck transporting milk

“I think there was some resistance when my parents first started,” said Smyth. “I think mainly because it was something new, something that hadn’t been done before, so there was a lot of paperwork to sort out, with licences and figuring out exactly how things would run, but those things were figured out.”

Dyck said she managed the quota issue by creating two companies, one for the farm and one for the ice-cream-processing business.

“Cornell Creme basically buys milk from Dairy Farmers of Manitoba, and Cornell Dairy gets paid from Dairy Farmers of Manitoba,” she explained. “It’s really a non-issue.”

When asked if expansion is on their minds, the processors had different takes, but both acknowledged that entrepreneurs need to be realistic about the resources they have and how much time they can dedicate to a processing business.

“It is profitable, not as profitable as many people probably think, but you know there’s something to be said that it’s not all about money, for me it’s about continuing what my parents started, it’s about continuing that legacy of making quality products that people enjoy,” Smyth said. “But owning your own business does have its pros and cons… there’s a lot of flexibility there, at the same time, doing what we do is a lot of work, we work seven days a week, my husband puts in 60-, 70-hour weeks.”

Smyth doesn’t expect the business, which produces between 100 and 150 kilos of cheese each week, will expand any further.

Cornell Creme on the other hand does intend to grow.

“Once we get a little bit bigger our cost of production will come down. We will also get a break from some suppliers, because I can order bigger quantities,” Dyck said, adding that working with the University of Manitoba has been a great experience, but that she would like to move into her own processing plant sooner rather than later.

Both women would also like to see more producers make the leap to on-farm processing in the future.

“It’s definitely a lifestyle, but we definitely enjoy it, and as long as you enjoy it, it makes it all worthwhile,” Smyth said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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