Empire Cheese Co-Op

Naturally better with age and old-fashioned care
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

Based in Campbellford, Ontario, Farmer-owned and 135-year-old Empire Cheese Co-op (Empire Cheese) is one of the region’s oldest cheesemakers. The cooperative has perfected its craft for more than a century and is still holding fast to old-fashioned traditions.

“We don’t use additives or flavors in our cheese,” shares Jack Oliver, general manager of Empire Cheese. “Proper aging takes time and we still use the old-school, open-style vats in our cheese making process.”

That’s just the way it’s been since the turn of the century. “Originally the co-op started just around the corner in the 1870s on the farm of John Haig, one of the area’s first cheese makers,” tells Oliver. “In 1952, Kimberly Cheese Factory merged with Empire Cheese and became the Empire Cheese and Butter Co-op, but we’ve since dropped the butter part of the name.”

The first factory was built when Les Shillinglaw resided as head cheesemaker, followed by Don Pollock. “Our current cheesemaker is Mark Erwin,” notes Oliver. “When the co-op built the first factory in 1952, there were 45 members. As a farmer-owned organization, the only way to keep a membership was to milk cows.”

Staying small and sticking to tradition

Today, the membership in the actual cooperative part of Empire Cheese has dropped to just nine members, but Oliver says that hasn’t stopped the cheesemaking business. “With modern farming techniques we’re still producing nearly as much and we’re not necessarily buying the milk directly from the farmers as things have changed,” he explains.

Even in a changing agricultural landscape Empire Cheese remains a fixture in the community, employing 14 full-time individuals. “That number usually bumps up to 30 or so during Christmas and the holidays,” adds Oliver. “We’re a much smaller operation than the larger Agropur and Parmalat plants. Parmalat gets more milk in three days than we get in a year, but we’re a staple because we’re still doing things the old-fashioned way.”

From its modest yet modern plant, Empire Cheese utilizes open-style vats to make cheese and cheese curds –without additives to boost production and additional artificial flavors. The cheese is vacuumed packed in the facility to preserve flavor and ensure the freshest product possible.

The company is well-known for a wide selection of gift baskets, including famous handmade cheese and compliments such as biscuits, jam, honey, fudge and more. The majority of product is sold through the factory store and outlets in Peterborough, Lindsay, Barrie, Orillia, Oshawa, Cobourg, Belleville, Kingston, Ottawa and surrounding small Ontario communities.

“We avoid the Toronto market because it’s too big,” explains Oliver. “We have hired another company called Three Roads Farms that help bring products more north, as well as Campbellford Wholesale, which will go to places we can’t reach. Peterborough tends to be our strongest city.”

Award-winning products

Sticking to traditional techniques has certainly paid off for Empire Cheese. The company recently won numerous accolades at Ontario’s annual Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, one of the largest agricultural exhibitions in eastern Canada.

Going up against big-name competition such as Canadian cheese giant, Agropur, Empire Cheese pulled off two first place, four second place and two third place wins in the cheddar competition –the best showing ever by the artisan producer. From mild to extra mature, marbled to Stilton shaped cheddar, Empire Cheese nearly swept the entire competition.

“Cheddar has always been our main product, but now we’re doing lots of different flavors,” tells Oliver. “We started doing smoked Cheddar this year as well. We also buy in and sell Swiss, bleu and Brie to give our customers some alternative selections.”

A piece of the pie

And when it comes to importing cheese, the newly mandated Canada EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is changing the game says Oliver. “CETA is releasing 30 percent more import quota and it’s going to affect cheese factories like ourselves more than anyone else,” he explains. “Everyone from grocery stores to restaurants and mom-and-pop shops are all after a piece of the quota Agropur and Parmalat have maintained control of more than 50 percent of the available import quota so it’s a race to get a share of what’s being released.”

Oliver says the Ontario Dairy Commission is planning to rally to make a presentation on behalf of local farms to the government to vouch for a share of the quota. “If it turns out the way we want, we’ll get a considerable amount,” he says.

Quotas aside, after more than a century, Oliver says Empire Cheese isn’t going anywhere. “People in this community are very faithful to us because we stick to traditional cheesemaking and we donate a lot back,” he considers. “And we always try to hire locally if we can.”

For 135 years and counting, Empire Cheese Co-op has been a fixture in the community, perfecting traditional cheesemaking and getting naturally better with age.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
HTM Ins Co