Farmers build dairy plant to avoid additives

Wilma and Nicole Mol fill glass bottles with milk inside their dairy plant near Thunder Bay, Ont. The Mols operate Slate River Dairy and sell natural dairy products at their store and through a farmers market. | Photo courtesy of Cynthia Vis/Sunny Creek Photography

Ten years ago, Wilma Mol was frustrated.

She had noticed a decline in the quality of yogurt, ice cream and cheese at grocery stores, mostly because of what she attributes to additives in the dairy products.

“Corn starch and pectin in yogurt, skim milk powder or milk ingredients in cheese…. Ice cream with no cream in it, which is now called frozen dessert,” said Wilma, who operates a dairy farm near Thunder Bay, Ont. with her husband Jim.

The additives bothered Wilma because Canadian dairy farmers produce high quality milk.

Adding stuff to it makes the final product worse, not better.

Wilma complained about the problem for a while, but she eventually realized that complaints and griping don’t make a difference.

“If you want to change the world, change yourself first they say,” Wilma said in late April. “It is easy to complain but something much harder is to come up with solutions.”

The solution was not simple, nor easy.

Wilma and Jim decided to build their own dairy plant so they could make yogurt, cheese and chocolate milk without additives.

It took four years to get the necessary permits and construct the plant, but Slate River Dairy opened its doors and began bottling milk in August of 2015.

They now produce a number of products, including yogurt, kefir and butter, which are sold at a farmers market in Thunder Bay and through a retail store on their farm.

Their milk, sold in glass bottles, is different from the milk found at the Co-op or Safeway.

It isn’t homogenized and the cream floats on top.

“The milk gets pasteurized at 63 C for 30 minutes and it does not get homogenized so the cream rises to the top, even in the cocoa milk,” the website says. “This milk is the closest you are going to get to raw milk and its most natural state. The milk also does not get standardized into one percent or 3.25 percent. All whole milk products are made from milk straight from the cow, so all the goodness the cow puts in the milk is how you will enjoy all the benefits of drinking this fresh, local milk.”

Milk that is separated and must be shaken before drinking is still confusing for some of their customers.

Nicole Mol, Jim and Wilma’s daughter, works at the Slate River Dairy store. She remembers a young man who opened a bottle in the store and immediately drank the milk. Or rather, drank the cream floating on top.

“He was very surprised,” said Nicole, who is 22. “I’ve had some customers say they got tired of shaking the milk every time they were drinking our milk.”

Despite a tiny amount of negative feedback, Slate River Dairy and its products are a hit in Thunder Bay. Most of their clients are return customers, who love the natural milk.

“Having people taste real milk and real dairy products and seeing that smile on their faces when they ask for the real cocoa milk is the best,” Wilma said.

Wilma was born and raised a long way from northwestern Ontario, on a dairy farm in the Netherlands. As a young girl, she knew that she wanted to work with livestock and studied agriculture after graduating from high school. It was the 1980s, so women at an agriculture school were in the minority.

“Only four girls in our class and there were three classes with 24 students each,” she said, adding she earned a milking parlor diploma for a free-stall barn.

In 1988, one of the women in the class (Wilma’s best friend) decided to move to Texas.

After visiting her friend is Texas and seeing all the opportunities in the United States, Wilma also wanted to emigrate to the U.S.

But it was difficult to get a work permit for the U.S., so her friend suggested Canada. Wilma returned to the Netherlands and found a help-wanted ad in a farm magazine, “de Boerderij”.

The ad was for a dairy farm in Ontario.

“I called the number so see if they would be interested in a girl farmhand. And about a week later I got confirmation I was hired. I had not a clue where Thunder Bay was.”

She did know she would be working for a Dutch family, as most of the dairy farmers around Thunder Bay were from the Netherlands.

That was helpful. But adjusting to dairy farming in Canada was difficult.

“I remember…. walking into the barn and (thinking) ‘what did I get myself into’,” she said. “Being used to milking and working in free-stall barns (where cows move freely)… I was shocked to walk into a low ceiling, tie-stall barn.”

Wilma worked on dairy farms for a couple of years, until she got a job at the agricultural research station in Thunder Bay.

In 1990, Wilma met Jim. His parents (Klaas and Alie Mol) immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in the late 1940s.

Jim’s mom and dad immigrated separately (with their parents) to Canada and they began dating in Portage la Prairie, Man.

Not long after meeting, they started their own farm in Thunder Bay. That’s where Jim grew up.

Wilma and Jim married in 1991 and for several years they worked at the Mol family farm. Taking over the farm wasn’t realistic, as Jim’s older brothers were already involved in the operation. They looked for land in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, until a farm became available south of Thunder Bay.

Wilma and Jim Mol, along with their daughter Nicole, bottle milk and produce natural dairy products such as yogurt, cheese and kefir. | Photo courtesy of Cynthia Vis/Sunny Creek Photography

They bought it in 1996 and established their own dairy, but continued to work at the home farm with Jim’s family.

Their decision in 2011, to bottle milk and produce dairy products on their farm, was a timely choice. Over the last decade, the number of Canadians buying food at farmers markets and directly from producers has exploded across the country. Over the last year, the interest has surged even higher.

“COVID has increased the amount of people that come to the store (at Slate River Dairy),” said Nicole, noting the number of daily customers has tripled.

Nicole, 22, is one of four children. The others are Kyle, Michelle and Ian, who also works at Slate River Dairy.

The strong demand suggests the Mols are doing something right. Some Canadians must want dairy products that are free of additives.

One of their most popular products is cocoa milk.

“(It’s) made with only three ingredients: whole milk, cane sugar, and cocoa powder…. Because we leave in all the cream, we leave in all the taste, which results in only having to add half of the sugar to the milk… compared to what you get from chocolate milk made with one percent milk,” Wilma said. “Our cocoa milk is 96 percent milk, whereas the chocolate milk in the grocery store can be only 87 percent milk and the rest other ingredients.”

Thunder Bay has a population of 110,000, making it a decent market for natural dairy products. But the Mols have been exploring other opportunities.

They tried exporting yogurt, milk and butter to a tourist town on the North Shore of Lake Superior because grocery stores in Minnesota wanted the products.

But red tape became a major obstacle.

“We had our (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) licence and started to investigate how we could get our products across the border, but each time we hit a stumbling block of more paperwork and licensing and more cost,” Wilma said.

Instead, they now have a distributor in Dryden, Ont., which is between Thunder Bay and the Manitoba border.

It’s been a decade since the Mols made their decision to “take action,” rather than complain about the additives in yogurt, cheese and dairy products.

Managing dairy cows and operating a processing plant is hard work, but it was a satisfying choice, Wilma said.

“We have had young moms tell us their baby sleeps through the night because they feel full after drinking our whole milk. Or if you have people that are lactose intolerant and they tell you they can have your yogurt,” Wilma said. “These are the stories that confirms that you make a difference in someone’s life.”

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