A new building has been rising within sight of the well-respected Enniskillen dairy barn, within a couple of hundred barn near the Old Scugog Road. The new on-farm processing facility is bright blue with a prominently displayed circular logo featuring the distinctive shape of a Jersey cow.
It’s almost ready to begin production as a part of a plan to involve the five Sargent siblings in taking the farm into the next generation.
Why it matters: COVID-19 has created more interest from consumers in connecting with local food and some farmers are working to take advantage of that fact.
The pandemic caused significant delays in sourcing some materials, as well as scheduling when the different construction trades could be on site, says Bruce Sargent, one of the next generation involved in the farm.
“We did okay lumber-wise. We had all of that stuff ordered last summer, so we haven’t been stung that way,” he said.
The pandemic also prevented the family from making on-site visits to established on-farm dairy processors, which they had anticipated as they prepared for their own launch.
“But we still decided to do this even with COVID because we could see there was still a need and a demand,” Bruce said.
Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s most recent annual report shows the number of on-farm cow dairy processors in Ontario has remained at 14 since 2015, but also that more than one new entrant is expected in 2021. Sargent Family Dairy has a good chance at being the first across the finish line.
Multiple test batches of the three types of products planned for the facility – fluid milk in chocolate and two per cent in glass bottles; cheese curds and camembert; and butter and cultured butter – have allowed for the perfection of the recipes, Bruce said, and “we are days away from booking our licensing inspection with OMAFRA.”
On-farm processing had been on the family’s radar since 2016 as a possible way for Tim and Sharyn Sargent’s children to remain involved on the farm. The final decision came in February 2019 as some of the siblings were wrapping up their post-secondary education.
Bruce, who had already been operating his Farm Boy Productions public relations firm for several years, jumped at the chance to step in and manage the sales and marketing side.
With the launch looming, he admits he’s now pretty much full-time working for the farm – along with keeping up with the Canada-wide activities of Farm Boy Productions.
“It’s a bit of a juggling act. But it’s all about learning to do new things.”
Also heavily involved with the launch is his sister Melyssa. Already one of the main day-to-day labourers (along with her dad and brothers Daniel and Benjamin) in the 60-cow tie-stall operation, she has immersed herself over the past several months learning about cheesemaking, milk processing and quality control. Melyssa will run the processing facility.
Bruce said family wasn’t the only factor in the decision. Situated within easy driving distance of the eastern GTA as well as nearby urban centres including Linsday, Port Perry, Cobourg and Bowmanville, Sargent Family Dairy is now one of about 75 members of Durham Farm Fresh.
“It’s an area that has really great support for farm-gate operations,” said Bruce.
The family recognized that dairy wasn’t strongly represented among the direct-to-consumer operations in the region and the feedback they’ve received since announcing their plans revealed the public generally shared that perspective.
“People are very excited to buy directly from us just because (dairy) is not as readily available (in on-farm formats) as some other products are,” he said.
Sharyn is wrapping up a career in nursing and plans to work at the on-farm store once that is up and running sometime after COVID. That space, attached directly to the processing plant, will double as a viewing room for consumers who want a first-hand look at how their food is made.
Future plans also include building a new barn for housing and milking the cows on the same property as the new processing facility – thereby eliminating the need for the custom-made tank and trailer that will be used in the short term for transporting the raw material from milkhouse to processing vat.
That move, once it happens, will represent a significant next chapter for the herd. Enniskillen Jerseys rose to prominence under former owner, the late Frank Stenger, a 2011 inductee into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame, and saw that reputation continued under Tim and Sharyn. Tim grew up on a dairy farm near Peterborough but didn’t have the capital to take over that operation. However, he developed close ties with Stenger and eventually was mentored by the well-respected Jersey breeder to take over Enniskillen.
“He kind of became our third grandpa,” Bruce said of Stenger.
The Jersey breed figures prominently in the new processing venture’s marketing strategy (“Made with 100 per cent Jersey milk,” declares the sign on the family’s new delivery van – which is otherwise fully wrapped in a photo of a Jersey cow on pasture), and Melyssa has learned how to take advantage of the farm’s 5.3 per cent butterfat average on the processing side.
Camembert, she found out, has a wonderful flavour profile when made with Jersey milk. Butter is also distinctive – “not your generic store-bought butter,” Bruce noted. “The Jersey difference is that it gives us more to do with a litre of milk. We’ve got a lot more cream to play with.”
The biggest reward so far, though, hasn’t been about providing jobs for family members or promoting the Jersey breed. It has been about connecting with their community.
Bruce said initial marketing plans involve exclusively independent markets and locally owned businesses. “The biggest restrictions for that will be whether we can make the distance driving-wise.”
For now, their van should be big enough to fit what they have planned. They’re also building a list for home delivery. “We’ll turn on routes when we can justify going to that area.” It will be subscription-based. There won’t be one-off deliveries to homes.
Now that word is out, they’ve fielded lots of calls from potential retail outlets.
They’ve fielded even more calls and online messages from consumers eager to fill their fridges and tables with Sargent Family Dairy products.
“It’s really nice to see the comments and to see people excited for our family,” he said.