Sisters crack competitive B.C. cheese market

On the Farm: High labour costs are a challenge when competing with imported product that is gaining prominence

When sisters Jenna and Emma Davison were first presented with the idea of running their own business, they looked at each other in dismay.

Jenna, 22 at the time, liked to consider things before making a move. Emma, then 20, was a risk-taker, ready to act first and ask questions later.

Somehow, the combination worked and now, with both women in their 30s, they are owners and operators of Golden Ears Cheesecrafters in Maple Ridge, B.C., a successful business in its 10th year of operation.

“I think a lot of the time our different personalities when we were growing up caused a lot of challenges between us because I always had to coax her into an idea,” says Emma.

“I’m often the one that, yeah, let’s do it. We’re going to just go ahead and roll with the punches. And she is a lot more cautionary, where she sits there and says ‘OK, hang on, let’s take a beat and just talk about it for a minute.’ So we really play on each other’s strengths in that way.”

Emma generally handles the marketing side of the operation and is the sister who deals most often with the public.

Jenna handles the production side, including the making of 12 different varieties of cheese in the 7,000 sq. foot production facility. And she agrees that personality differences make the business work.

“We’re best friends but we’re also complete opposites. So we work really well as a team. We have different strengths that kind of keep everything together,” says Jenna.

“She is one of those people who is amazing on social media. She can speak in front of a crowd and teach you anything. She is an amazing salesperson. So she had all these skills already that just kind of flowed. Emma ended up being kind of like the front-end salesperson and I was all production.”

The two women don’t describe themselves as farm girls, though they did grow up on land owned and farmed by the family since 1902. They spent much of their youth on their uncle’s neighbouring dairy farm and on farms operated by other relatives. They also maintain a close connection with their uncle and his Jersey cow herd on the property next door to their business.

That has given them insight into agricultural production that comes in handy in fielding customers’ questions.

“So we got older, we started to identify that there was a huge disconnect between the information that a farmer has, and the knowledge that he or she has, and the information that’s being conveyed to the end consumer,” says Emma.

Golden Ears was named for geographic reasons, being close to Golden Ears Provincial Park. That serves as a landmark for customers wanting to visit the cheesery and its attached country kitchen, which serves cheese-based dishes and has a large window so visitors can see cheese being made in the production area.

The business produces 12 different kinds of cheese ranging from cheddar and gouda to havarti and brie. Production ranges from 250 to 350 kilograms of cheese each week.

A staff of about 15 full- and part-time workers swells to about 25 in summer, when the cheeses are also sold at various farmers markets in the region.

Its location about a 40-minute drive from downtown Vancouver results in brisk walk-in traffic, especially on weekends. However, the pandemic has reduced some of that traffic in the past year.

Jenna, a former crop consultant, learned cheese making from those at Farmhouse Natural Cheeses, a business in Agassiz, B.C.

Emma was training as a nurse but when the sisters decided to launch a business, she switched to business courses.

Though the sisters say they regularly sell out of cheese, it is nevertheless a competitive business.

“The stuff that is coming from other countries right now is starting to become a little bit more prominent and that’s starting to become more of a struggle to compete with those. In Canada, we just can’t produce food at the prices that people can import food,” says Jenna.

Labour costs are among the biggest reasons. British Columbia’s minimum wage has doubled since Golden Ears began operation.

The business recently took advantage of a provincial program that provided $6,500 for a real-time digital traceability system.

Business is brisk but the sisters have no plans to expand. Jenna has three young children and Emma has one, so there are other demands on their time.

“I don’t know if we want to get much bigger,” says Jenna. “We like the size that we’re at right now.”

Emma agrees, although in hindsight she thinks the building could have been bigger.

She and Jenna no longer worry about the challenges of working with a sibling. Business success has proven that it works.

“It’s different working for something that you’re super, super passionate about and both my sister and I are incredibly passionate so we’re really blessed to be able to have a business that we get to come to every day and truly believe that what we’re doing every single day … we’re making a difference,” says Emma.

“We’re making an impact on our community.”

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