By Jeff Tribe
As with many new dining experiences, there was prescribed etiquette to be learned and observed at Udderly Ridiculous near Bright.
It wasn’t so much which fork or spoon for which dish or which glass for which wine. In fact, place setting and fingers-first options couldn’t have been more casual. It was, however, important to greet the host alpacas in the proper manner, bowing one’s head for an introductory sniff prior to petting or tidbit sharing.
“I can’t say I’ve ever eaten lunch outdoors with alpacas before,” laughed Jordan Lenz, having enjoyably navigated not only that opening introduction, but every element of the Udderly Ridiculous alpaca picnic experience and subsequent encounters with roaming chickens and mischievous goats. “Check that one off the bucket list.”
“It’s something that is so unique and enjoyable,” added friend Elisa Fitzpatrick. “So many people are removed from country life. Getting to know the animals and interact in a safe space is very enjoyable.”
An alpaca picnic could be seen as a hard left, or more accurately — the right — pandemic pivot for an operation conceived around the creation of artisan goat milk ice cream. The initiative is a complementary exercise between third-generation Bright-area farmer Greg Haskett and wife Cheryl, whose background in tourism and career as a keynote speaker/facilitator/trainer in emotional intelligence, innovation and engagement for large organizations offers unexpectedly invaluable experience.
“It’s actually bringing all of our skillsets together,” says Cheryl.
Greg’s transition away from potentially-low pork margins passed through a “dabble” in cash crops and sheep before landing on dairy goats. He received his first milk cheque in March, 2010, growing his milking herd from 150 to 1,400 goats. His passage to a “cottage farm business on steroids” was accomplished without the government support or research accessible to more standard sectors.
“I’ve learned an awful lot,” he said. “And we’ve grown a lot.”
Greg’s goal of providing farm-based product melded with Cheryl’s love of cooking into a long-term dream of creating sophisticated lactose and casein sensitivity-friendly goat milk ice cream. A choice preferable, they believed, to wading into a competitive and crowded goat cheese or other related product marketplace.
“It’s a niche within a niche,” explained Cheryl of what she sees as a “feel good” product. “Life’s up and down moments are often complemented by ice cream.”
Their concept was a singular product using high-quality all-natural ingredients in unique combinations targetting an adult foodie market.
“We couldn’t come out with the same old, same old,” she explained. “In order to start something like this you’ve got to come out of the gate hard in a blue ocean and show something different.”
Sourcing every ice cream crafting resource she could find, Cheryl headed into the kitchen for an extended exploration through 30 culinary concepts including some “disgusting” rejects before arriving at a half-dozen creations worthy of the Udderly Ridiculous brand: Coffee & Craft Brew, Lemon Cream, Peachy Mango Tango, Vanilla Bean Lavender, Spiced Pumpkin and Wine & Dark Chocolate.
“I really do love flavour combinations.”
An elevated “next evolution” approach brought directly-related challenges. The differences between making cow and goat milk ice cream are considerably less says Cheryl than the differences between using natural products versus an ice cream base and flavouring.
Seventy-four per cent bittersweet chocolate and Ontario merlot; or an infusion of Kintore Coffee and Upper Thames Brewing Company porter do waltz across the tastebuds in a unique tango. However, attendant alcohol also alters the product’s freezing point. Alternatively, pumpkin puree may contain problematic textures to some ice-cream making equipment.
Locally-sourced lavender buds pair well with vanilla bean in a tasting kitchen. “But you can’t use buds when you scale up,” said Cheryl, who found herself personally overseeing drop-by-drop oil allocation. She tasted as she went after tossing 600 pints which didn’t measure up to exacting standards. “Using lavender is very, very tricky.”
The translation from kitchen-approved to commercially-viable replication in a certified plant effectively limited production options to a single provincial co-packer, who met their exacting specifications.
“It’s still relatively small-batch,” says Cheryl, noting for example, each lid is installed by hand.
They launched in 2019 with product placement in Pusateri’s Fine Foods in Toronto and a booth at the One of a Kind Show. This was a springboard for an ambitious 30-event tour including the 10-day Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. They handed out over 80,000 samples to potential customers on compostable spoons while networking and relationship-building with chefs and mixologists.
Their marketing and branding efforts also saw Udderly Ridiculous embraced by Sobey’s local program, Whole Foods, Goodness Me, Healthy Planet, Fortino’s and “a lot of independents.”
“I love working with the small independents,” said Cheryl, “they care about local food supply and want to learn and be knowledgeable about your product.”
And then, along came COVID-19, physically distancing the very personal connections they had worked so hard to establish. In its wake, Udderly Ridiculous pivoted promotional efforts towards social media. Facing the realization that their products couldn’t be taken to consumers, they decided to expose consumers to their passion through farm-based experiential opportunities in conjunction with on-site retail.
“That became an extension of our brand, to invite people into our family operation.”
It had always been an operational goal, utilizing Greg’s father Alvin’s gregarious, outgoing nature as a greeter/ambassador. An enthusiastic world traveller via choir or mission work, Alvin was always quick to pull his phone out and proudly share photos and stories of the farm. Sadly, he fell ill and passed before even an accelerated effort would allow him to celebrate the official grand opening.
“Legacy and heritage is certainly part of it,” said Greg.
“Losing him was really hard,” agreed Cheryl. “But the reality is we’re keeping that legacy alive.”
Udderly Ridiculous currently offers experiential options such as their signature “Taste of Farm Life”, an immersive two-and-a-half hour educational foodie exploration. They also offer team building exercises, goat yoga, cuddles and recess (four-legged kids on playground equipment tailored for them), photo shoots, and alpaca walks. Encounters and picnics like Lenz, a paediatric RN, and Fitzpatrick, a manager at a farm-based retail outlet, shared include consuming a locally-sourced picnic basket amongst a close encounter of the alpaca kind.
Fast friends who met at an adult hip hop drop-in dance studio in London, they try and keep in touch through mutually-enjoyable outings, horseback riding, hiking or “farm anything,” says Lenz, She spent time on friends’ properties as a child, and would love to move to the country, something that’s “not gonna happen in this market.”
“We just like to be outdoors and with animals. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity.”
Lenz was introduced to the concept via Instagram, did some additional internet scrolling and flipped Fitzpatrick a text with a time and destination, but no details.
“Full-on surprise,” Fitzpatrick laughed. “Definitely an experience, something new,” she continued, alluding to a preference for outdoor space, quiet and nature “over concrete blocks and city.”
Experiential evolution may have been driven by a global pandemic, but it also dovetailed with cooped-up urbanites.
“They’re stuck and craving outside and some connection with nature,” said Cheryl. “We’ve been able to provide them with that.”
Her habit is to ask visitors upon arrival why have they come and what are they hoping to get out of the experience. This is followed with an exit interview based on what they are taking away.
“It’s very different things,” she said. “They expect to be at a farm and see a goat and something else happens. We want to create opportunities for people to take those nuggets away.”
She recalls the many smiles she sees on guests’ faces; the father who brought his kids for a goat recess running and laughing like a kid himself; her own surprise at the joy people exhibit from picking up and cuddling a chicken; or a 180-degree shift in a young boy quite obviously “dragged here” by parents, who left as the biggest advocate.
“He just had an experience of farm life. He didn’t go up in a helicopter or something like that ... he got to play with a chicken, he got to understand about soil, he got to interact with goats. How do you walk away and not go, ‘We are doing the right thing here, no matter how hard it is?’”
Make no mistake, it has been difficult. Independent of the challenges of farming — livestock, frozen water pipes, machinery —Udderly Ridiculous is among many independent businesses hit hard by the global pandemic. A tour of the website reveals the structured professionalism of their approach, something of the mountain of work involved, as well as industry recognition including a Retail Council of Canada Canadian Grand Prix new product award, or South Western Ontario Tourism Corporation nominations for innovator of the year and innovative experience of the year.
They have always operated from a socially-conscious perspective, utilizing recyclable or compostable materials in their production. They donated 5,500 pints of ice cream to women’s and other shelters and food banks plus a percentage of their profit goes to World Vision’s project to buy goats for Third World countries. Their retail outlet includes a wide range of Udderly Ridiculous branded items, but also showcases 50 other products from Ontario producers. And while farm-based activities are an effort to attract potential customers, they also include conversation around local agriculture, food production and food security.
“This is just part of the work we feel is important to do,” said Cheryl. “It’s not just about our success, it’s a community of success and introducing people to these concepts.”
She attributes their tenacity in the face of adversity to the farmer’s attitude of persevering and sticking with it until it’s done.
“Failure is not an option,” added Greg with a smile.
“For either of us,” Cheryl continued. “We are so stubborn, it might kill us both, but at the end of the day, we didn’t go without a fight.”
“It’s a good story,” Greg added.
In conclusion, he describes their motivation as an “investment in an emotional bank account.”
“At the end of the day, we’re not just here to consume,” Cheryl added. “We might not always have tons of money in the bank or a fancy car, but our definition of success might be different than someone else’s.” ◊