Cheese makers eager to expand product line

LANG, Sask. — Two-year-old Blythe Waddell-Holtom easily handles the livestock on her family’s farm.

She carts a squirming Nigerian Dwarf goat kid around until it slides down and kicks out of her grasp, scampering off to join some others.

It’s the kind of thing that could occupy a toddler for a while.

But the goats have a more important job here. They are how Blythe’s parents, Marin Waddell and James Holtom, are establishing themselves as farmers and cheese makers.

Waddell and Holtom were living in Regina and working as a community planner and an electrical engineer, respectively, before spending their honeymoon in France in 2006.

While eating the many types of cheese available, they realized there was no local cheese production back home in Saskatchewan.

They came back with a plan to become farmers.

“No one who knows me was particularly surprised,” laughed Waddell.

She grew up in Langley, B.C., near many dairies and cheese producers. She also worked part-time in a veterinary clinic during school.

It was a different reaction from Holtom’s Saskatoon family.

“My family was shocked,” he said. “My dad was really concerned that we were going to be selling cheese.”

They began looking for property and four years ago found two quarters with a decent house and a reasonable price tag about an hour south of the city. It already had corrals and outbuildings and room for a new building with a milking parlour and cheese-making floor.

They rent out some of the land for hay and are fencing some for their goats.

The cheese building was built in the summer of 2010 and by August 2011 the first cheese was for sale at the Regina Farmers’ Market.

Waddell said she already considers herself a farmer because she stays home with Blythe, looks after the goats and makes the cheese.

Holtom helps as much as he can with milking and maintenance but still makes the daily commute to his job at SaskPower.

“We don’t make enough (from the cheese) to not work off the farm,” he said.

The couple isn’t sure when that might change. A baby boy, Robert, joined the family at SalayView Farms June 20. Salay is the Michif word for sun and a nod to Holtom’s Metis heritage.

“Our five year goal is to have everything paid off. I’ll stay working for those five years,” said Holtom.

“Last year we had set up costs. We’ll have ongoing fencing costs. I expect we’ll make money this year but all of that will go back into paying off debt.”

A community futures loan helped get the business going.

They milk 19 goats out of 60 in total, plus some larger LaManchas brought in to top up production until the Nigerian herd is established. The optimum number will be 40 does with kids.

Waddell has been learning as she goes. There are no other goat farms nearby and only one other Nigerian Dwarf breeder in the province.

“Our vet in Weyburn has been awesome,” she said.

They chose the breed because the goats are about half the size of other dairy goats and they prefer the flavour of the milk.

“It has a higher butterfat content so it makes better cheese,” Waddell said.

Half the goats are milked at 4:30 a.m. and half are milked at 6 p.m. The milk goes into a 200-litre bulk tank, which is small by cattle dairy standards but large enough for SalayView.

The couple wants to start by making cheese just once a week. Milking more goats would mean more cheese making.

Waddell attended a week-long course at the Western Dairy Centre in the United States to learn how to make cheese.

It begins in their Canadian Food Inspection Agency-approved facility, which is also subject to a yearly inspection from the regional health authority. The operation is considered a food processing facility rather than a dairy.

The process takes two days, followed by a day of cleaning.

The milk is transferred from the bulk tank to a pasteurization vat and heated to 63 C for 30 minutes. Running cold water through the inner walls of the tank then cools the milk to 23 C. At that point, the starter culture is added and the mixture is left to sit for six hours.

Waddell then adds a vegetarian coagulant to make her cheese suitable for those who prefer that diet.

“Most cheese isn’t actually vegetarian,” she said, because the rennet used to coagulate milk contains enzymes from a cow’s stomach.

The milk then sits for 12 hours to coagulate.

The next morning she scoops the curds into drain bags and hangs them for another 12 hours to drain the whey. Salt and spices are added and the cheese is packaged and labelled to meet federal requirements.

SalayView Farms sells plain, chive and herbs de Provence fresh goat cheese, or chevre, in 100 gram packages that keep for about a month in the fridge.

Waddell said she may one day produce aged cheeses, which require more steps in the process and caring for the cheese as it ages, but for now she will focus on fresh.

In addition to the farmers’ market, the cheese is also available at Regina’s Italian Star Deli and Orange Boot Bakery. Their success has been gratifying to them and their skeptics.

They said some locals thought they were crazy but are happily surprised at the couple’s perseverance and success.

The farm has several dogs, including Great Pyrenees to help keep coyotes at bay, and some laying hens. Other livestock isn’t on the agenda yet. They will eventually sell some of their stock to keep the herd at a consistent size.

Some goats will likely become pets or provide milk to acreage owners who want their own goat milk.

However, the rareness of the breed means there is a market for breeding stock. Waddell and Holtom shipped their first goats from Victoria by airplane in dog kennels.

Interest in the cheese has extended to several chefs from Saskatoon restaurants. Waddell is considering adding a feta cheese to the production line.

Holtom expects it will sell as well as the other types. Offering samples to potential buyers at the market has resulted in a 90 percent purchase rate.

“People say, ‘I hate goat cheese,’ but we’re selling everything we’re making right now,” he said.

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