Rural Ontario: the place for food and drink

BLYTH, Ont. — Expect red tape. Access expertise. Take the time to research and plan. Tell your story. Love what you do.

These were among the comments from five Ontario business owners who are part of the province’s burgeoning food and drink industry. They spoke at the Rural Talks to Rural Conference held earlier this fall.

Catherine Landsborough with Maelstrom Winery spoke of the importance of being authentic, a point emphasized by the other speakers.

“We are making wine from grapes that come from our own land,” she said.

“We had gotten out of cattle and the vineyard we have today was a pasture field. We were sensitive to what the land could be used for. We couldn’t have cropped it conventionally.”

The first winery in Huron County features less common, cold-hardy grape varieties but Landsborough said their wines have been em-braced by their customers, especially young people with no preconceived notion of what is or isn’t a good wine.

The nine-acre vineyard is located on a sheltered location on the farm, which is part of an area recently identified as the newest cool climate wine region in Ontario. The family made 6,500 litres from the 2015 crop and expect the same volume this year.

It’s a new direction for the family who have farmed in the area since the 1830s.

A second Huron winery is being established about a mile inland from Lake Huron at the Hessenland Country Inn operated by Liz Ihrig and her husband.

“We already showcase a lot of local food products,” Ihrig said.

“Right now the trend is, if it’s made just up the road, people want it and they want to hear the story.”

At Blyth, Steven Sparling and his brother, David, are investing in the beer industry in a big way with Cowbell Brewing Co. Until recently, the family operated a propane distribution company.

Sparling said research indicated making beer was a good bet and would help support the local economy.

The first beers are being co-produced at another location as Cowbell’s brewery, restaurant and other facilities are being built with a spring opening in sight.

At full production, the plant is to produce 33 different beers and ales and is expected to employ from 120 to 130.

With strong demand for its first offering, Sparling said there is distribution in more than Ontario liquor store locations.

The brewery is also environmentally friendly, using less water for the brewing process. It’s accessed from the deep well on the property and effluent will be managed on site.

“We have tried to find another closed-loop brewery in North America and we haven’t been able to find one,” Sparling said.

As with the craft beer and wine industry, identity is important to artisanal cheese makers.

Paul Van Dorp at Blyth Cheese Farm and Shep Ysselstein at Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese have both been in the business for about five years with award-winning results.

Van Dorp makes cheese from his family’s farm near Blyth. He uses goat and sheep milk from neighbours to produce gouda-style cheeses, including smoked, aged and flavoured types.

While there’s a small on-farm retail store, most of the cheese is moved by distributors through specialty shops in the Toronto area.

“When you start a small business, first of all, you have to make an excellent product and then you to sell it,” he said.

While meeting regulatory standards takes time and money, Van Dorp said once everything is in place, customers can be assured they’re buying from a certified facility.

Gunn’s Hill is located just eight minutes from Highway 401 at Woodstock, Ont. Like Van Dorp, Ysselstein said getting approvals takes time, but support is available.

“People at pretty well every level wanted to help us,” he said.

Ysselstein uses cow’s milk from his parent’s nearby dairy farm but also markets cheese made from sheep and buffalo milk. There are several types produced, including gouda and Swiss-style cheeses.

About 30 percent of the cheese is marketed at the manufacturing location. The rest is marketed through a combination of small and large retailers.

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