By Jeff Tribe
The Marshall clan is expanding through diversification into an innovative whole-milk dispensing machine and cheese production facility rather than upping numbers of dairy cattle and quota in order to move a five-generation farming operation into a sixth.
“Keeping the status quo is fine,” said Golspie Dairy’s Marja DeBoer-Marshall. “But it’s not going to keep your business going into the future.”
The Marshall family began farming north of Woodstock in 1874 and is closing in on 150 years of continual operation. But with Ron and Wendy heading toward retirement and the inevitable decision on whether there was a family member willing to continue given a transitional agricultural landscape, that streak came into question.
Enter son Laurence and daughter-in-law Marja, considering ongoing financial viability with a 30-cow milking herd.
“We didn’t want to get out and couldn’t get bigger, so we had to make our own path,” she explained.
The couple met at the University of Waterloo, she taking Political Science and Global Affairs, he in Biology. Graduating in 2015, Laurence moved back home with the intention of going full time. Marja continued off-farm, her background including an organic vegetable farm, small cafe, milking dairy goats and helping with kidding, and finally, marketing and then cheese-making with Mountain Oak Cheese, where she assisted with everything from cheese-making to packaging. “Basically all parts of the process.”
The arrival of the couple’s daughter Mavis and associated maternity leave gave Marja time to brainstorm and cost out their dream of on-farm value-added products including the dairy equivalent of a dispensing machine, combined with their own cheese-making facility. The process incorporated responsibilities including writing a business plan, meeting a variety of regulatory qualifications, and acting as general contractor for a 2,500-square-foot food processing facility in a COVID-impacted construction world, all while caring for a baby.
“I don’t think I’d recommend it to others,” Marja laughed. “We joke that the cheese plant is our second child.”
Their ultimate vision aligns with an artisanal wave sweeping across Europe, the United States and now Canada, based on the principles of a family-focussed, community-driven and environmentally-responsible operation. Their model includes a Brunimat milk dispenser, the fresh dairy equivalent of an autonomous pop or junk-food vending machine. There are several milk dispenser manufacturers in Europe, says Marja, this Swiss company being the one willing to ship internationally. There are a handful of dispensers operational in Canada, she continued, to her knowledge units in British Columbia, Cape Breton and Saskatchewan.
“But this is the first one in Ontario.”
Their dispenser features two 200-litre tanks of chilled milk, one whole, one chocolate from which customers can refill glass bottles, either their own or classically-shaped branded containers purchased from Golspie Dairy.
“It’s its own unique product,” says Marja, milk containing the same fat content which comes out of a cow. “You can’t get that at the store.”
The milk dispenser is an integral component to the business, however secondary processing is where her true passion lies.
“We built this facility because I want to be in there making cheese.”
The plant features a receiving room for their own milk, transported by special tanker along a purpose-built laneway under DFO regulations, a batch pasteurizer utilizing a lower temperature as part of a “gentler” process, a processing room with a larger cheese vat and smaller vats for lactic-style (made slower with less rennet) cheeses.
“You end up with a different texture to your cheese,” Marja explained.
There is an aging room where cheese is allowed to age naturally, flipped, brushed and wiped regularly, a smaller room for bottling and processing product, a small packaging room, and shipping and retail areas.
The infrastructure is supported by a raft of regulatory compliance, says DeBoer-Marshall.
She had to write both SOPs and SSOPs, standard operating procedure and standard sanitizing operating procedure documents, including record-keeping components. Marja also was required to get her plant milk and cream grader certification in order to receive milk at the plant, as well as food-handler training.
“It is important, you need to know, but it is a lot of work,” she said.
DeBoer-Marshall also had to meet local municipal public health regulations and additionally, their provincial equivalents, the latter through OMAFRA. Federal public health compliance is being considered for the future to allow products to be shipped nationally, rather than their current provincial boundaries.
The regulations add another layer of complexity, says Marja, but a perfectly understandable one.
“It gives you that assurance, that trust,” she said. “People know they are getting a unique product that not only tastes great and is nutritious, but is also safe. We need to do everything in our power to produce and sell the safest and best-quality products we can.”
Golspie Dairy’s first commercially-available cheese will be named Crowdie, a lighter, fluffier option made from milk, offering its attendant lower fat content. It is similar, says Marja, to cream cheese and a favourite of their young daughter who “eats it by the spoonful”. It has a spreadable texture. “It’s basically the best thing you can put on a bagel.”
Marja is also planning to make British-style cheese, similar to cheddar with attendant sharpness.
“It has a bite to it with that nice, crumbly texture.”
Her ultimate goal is to make a Stilton-style cheese, a creamy blue with an understated flavour profile.
Going from plan to operational plant is a process that encompassed two years. Construction began in December, 2021 after a year’s planning and paperwork. Following meeting the myriad regulations and testing of the first batches of milk, chocolate milk, and Crowdie at The University of Guelph, the facility opened on December 17 of last year.
The milk dispenser offers public access seven days per week with the retail area open Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the beginning.
Paraphrasing, there is the hope that if they build the dairy facility of their dreams, people will come. Golspie Dairy does offer unique, undeniably farm-fresh products, however the challenge may be establishing a sustainable customer base willing to make the short trip outside of Woodstock down a gravel road, to access them.
“There are no guarantees in life,” said Marja. However, she is encouraged by how much excitement their impending opening generated on both the company website (golspiedairy.ca) and Facebook page, along with demand following that opening.
It has been an incredible amount of work, mental and physical, and there is a realization that work is just beginning. However, the process of creating one’s own career within the model of a sustainable family farm, designing and building a facility, producing and selling products to their local community, and receiving positive feedback on those same products, has been incredibly rewarding.
“I think that feedback can be just so heartening and helpful,” said Marja, tired, but productively so from the 24-month journey required to get to this encouraging point “We could have just said, ‘to heck with it, sell the farm and travel’. Or you can try.” ◊