Our Work, People
A Journey inspired by “Udder-ly” delicious cheese
Curated by Karli Longthorne
Storyteller: Shep Ysselstein
December 7, 2022
Providing the community with local jobs, artisan cheese, and an oasis to connect with nature are just a few ways Shep Ysselstein—cheese maker, owner, and operator of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese—is making a name for rural entrepreneurs in Oxford County.
Located in the heart of the Dairy Capital of Canada, Oxford County is known for its agriculture, dairy industry, and its friendly, local artisans.
Shep Ysselstein was born and raised in Oxford County and recalls how “I grew up just south of Woodstock and I was born in Woodstock. We used to live on a dairy farm one road north of here until I was ten, and then we moved to the farm where my family currently is. The farm was started by his grandfather Shep Ysselstein Sr., who immigrated to the area from Holland in the 1950’s. My dad, John Ysselstein took over my grandfather's farm when he retired, and now, years later, my younger brother, John Ysselstein Jr. has taken over the farm.”
Shep’s journey to becoming a skilled cheese maker began on his family's dairy farm, Friesvale Farms, where he discovered a curiosity about sourcing delicious products from dairy. During university, Shep studied business and after receiving his degree travelled within the United States, British Columbia, and Switzerland to hone his cheese-making skillset.
“It was during my trip to the town of Handeck in the Swiss Alps where I truly fell in love with the art of cheese-making and mastered my technique,” says Shep.
The cheese crafted at Gunn’s Hill is inspired by hand-crafted Swiss-style cheeses. 5 Brothers Cheese—a growing household favourite, and one of Gunn’s Hill’s most popular varieties—is a hand-crafted, washed rind cow’s milk cheese that combines traits from Gouda and a Swiss variety called Appenzeller. It is delicately aged on cedar wood planks to add robust flavours to the cheese.
Shep explains that “what makes our cheeses unique is that all our cheeses are made from milk sourced from my family’s Holstein cows. We craft different cheese varieties than other local cheese makers that may specialize in sheep’s milk cheese for example. At Gunn’s Hill, we have our own cheeses that carry their own tastes and textures but are crafted using traditional cheese-making methods.”
Loud fans that are used for climate control and ventilation and the intense aroma of cheese fill your senses when you visit the plant.
Our cheese business fills a need in Oxford County, says Shep. “Tourism Oxford has been encouraging locals and tourists to explore what our artisans have to offer.” Our business draws people to Oxford County not just to visit our site, but to visit nearby businesses.
Gunn’s Hill Cheese is one of the 24 stops along The Oxford County Cheese Trail, a self-guided tourism initiative made up of 24 curated shops with unique local cheese or dairy items. Annually, we see about 15,000 visitors, who travel from all over Ontario.
“Our business helps our local economy in many ways. We keep the money in the local economy because everyone that works here also lives here. Our on-site operations support local vendors and surrounding organizations that service our plant. We also bring growth and innovation to the community through educating others about diverse cultures through food, and teaching folks where their food comes from and how it’s made,” notes Shep.
From the vast fields of corn to the rotating wind turbines and the quiet pace of country life—Gunn’s Hill feels like home to its locals and urban visitors.
“I feel like when you grow up in rural Ontario, that's kind of what you're used to, and what you long to go back to. I enjoy country living. I enjoy being outside, and I enjoy the connection to nature and to the food that we make. I also like the space I have, says Shep.”
Living in and owning a business in Oxford County has presented rich social connections for Shep and his family. Not only is Shep steps away from his family farm, but he posits how his neighbours and local customers have turned into close friends over time.
“I think one of the big benefits of having our cheese factory and shop in a rural setting is that visitors get a feel for where the cheese comes from—they can see the local farm, the cows, where we source the cheese and can observe the entire cheese making process. During COVID-19, our business continued to grow as people in the urban centres were looking to get out of the city and support local businesses,” says Shep.
While living and working in Oxford County has its benefits, it also has its challenges. “We get so used to the types of people around us that sometimes we lack exposure to diverse groups of people, and unfortunately prejudice can accompany this,” says Shep. To address this, Shep has painted a rainbow walkway at the front of his shop, welcoming all folks, from near and far.
Another challenge of developing and sustaining a business in a rural setting has to do with the lack of services and resources available. “You must have your own wastewater management system and supply your own water.… while you can get higher voltages with three-phase power and almost all industrial equipment is programmed to operate using three-phase power, we must operate with the available single-phase power systems. Living on a gravel road also has its drawbacks, with it being a disincentive to urban motorists who might otherwise visit the factory and shop,” says Shep.
To overcome these challenges, Shep has learned how to make use of the resources available to him, such as the existing types of physical services available, sourcing and producing locally, and seeking out support from his local tourism branch.
While Shep still considers Gunn’s Hills Artisan Cheese to be a local business, it is sold in urban centres across Ontario—Kitchener, Waterloo, Toronto, and Ottawa—in restaurants, shops, and large supermarkets. “We still consider ourselves to be a local business because about 20 percent of what we sell, we sell right here on site, and half of all our sales remain within our own county,” states Shep.
For those thinking of starting a business in a rural setting, Shep discusses that they should start in their own area and understand the types of services offered (i.e., tourism agencies) and seek advice from people with the right skills. Shep explains that “rural areas are looking for employers to settle in their areas so they’re more willing to be accommodating.”
“We love where we operate, despite some of the challenges that exist. I think especially for our business because our factory and store are right next to our farm, this draws people in and I think it’s an important way for rural Ontario to diversity beyond just agriculture,” says Shep.