Environment, Crisis and Change, Food, Our Work
Community Connections via Sheep Cheese
Curated by Vanessa Cunningham
Storyteller: Cait White
October 6, 2021
Every Sunday for eight years, Cait and Kyle White travelled to downtown Ottawa to sell their sheep cheese at the Lansdowne Farmers Market. The Sunday market was a pillar in their schedule, and an important day to connect with the community they had established over the years. That was until March of 2020, when the pandemic hit and suddenly the market closed with barely a week’s notice. Cait and Kyle weren’t going anywhere, nor was their cheese. Luckily, their connections to the farming community helped launch them into a new farm cooperative initiative that became a pillar for them in a time of uncertainty. This isn’t the only change the couple have experienced since starting their farm in 2010. In fact, Cait and Kyle’s story is full of changes, and at the heart of it are connections to land, animals, and people.
“It’s all about connection,” says Cait, as she purposefully drives her orange Kubota tractor through rolling pasture fields on her farm, located just outside of Smiths Falls, Ontario. Cait and her husband, Kyle, run a small-scale sheep farmstead called Milkhouse Farm and Dairy. It sits on 100 acres of land, across the road from the farm where Cait grew up and where her parents still reside. It’s an idyllic place, full of native grasses and lined with a variety of trees, such as elm, maple, oak, and cedar, which divide the land into small sections. Below the hilly pasture is Rosedale Creek, which supports an abundance of other plant and tree species. On any given day, you can find sheep grazing leisurely in the fresh country air. “As long as there’s grass growing, they’re outside!” Cait exclaims.
“That was the humble beginning”
It was the spring of 2010. Cait and Kyle, recent science graduates (with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biochemistry, respectively), had a growing interest in local food and a desire to move back to their rural community of Smiths Falls. They were ready to do something different, something unique, but definitely not something like making sheep cheese.
Cait comes from generations of farmers and grew up on the organic Hereford beef cattle farm that her dad, Bill Dobson, bought in the 1960s and still maintains today. Despite this history, neither Cait nor Kyle ever imagined getting into farming, let alone cheese making. The idea initially came from Kyle’s dad, Mark White, who was always trying to help the couple with their career options. Mark kept a yellow folder of job ideas for them and always brought it out when they were visiting. “There was one time when he suggested cheese making, and we were both like, clearly that’s ridiculous, nobody’s ever gonna be a cheese maker. And we moved on,” says Cait.
However, the next year Cait and Kyle happened to watch a television show about goat farms that produced cheese. That sparked conversations about how scientific cheese making actually is, and just like that, Cait and Kyle decided to give it a go. It was Christmas 2009, and they thought, “Well, we could maybe get some goats, and milk some goats and make cheese, and that would be an interesting thing to do for a little while.”
“So then we just never looked back”
What started as a one-year trial has grown into a life and livelihood. In that first spring, on 25 acres of land owned by Cait’s dad, they raised 30 lambs, milked 6 sheep, and produced 10 wheels of cheese. Nowadays, in a typical season they milk 64 sheep, process around 10,000 litres of milk, and produce 400 wheels of two types of cheese: tomme and feta. As mentioned, they sell this cheese, along with lamb meat, wool, and wool duvets every Sunday at the Lansdowne Farmers’ Market in Ottawa. Cait and Kyle do this all on their own, every step of the way. For them, being farmers also means being agriculturists, cheese makers, veterinarians, mechanics, marketers, sales representatives, and business managers. It means milking as early as 5 a.m. and as late as 10 p.m., taking care of lambs and sheep, “and all sorts of crazy jobs that pull you in many directions at once,” says Cait.
“The workday blends into other parts of life,”says Cait, and finding balance can be a challenge at times. Yet the endeavour has brought important teachings. For example, Cait describes letting go of the need for control and instead working with nature – “you learn to be flexible and roll with the punches.”There is an understanding and acceptance that change is constant and expectations must adjust accordingly.Reflecting on11years of their cheese-making business, Cait says, “It’s kind of nice to have worked to this point on a project that you really had to figure out yourself. And it is really nice to have this business that we get to work on together.” Cait and Kyle take pride in their accomplishments and the dedicated effort that allowed them to “make something out of nothing.”
Embracing an attitude of openness was also essential in early 2020, when change and challenges presented themselves in new ways. Cait and Kyle welcomed their first child, Margot, while the world grappled with the devastating spread of the COVID-19 virus. The rapid unfolding of the pandemic forced many businesses to close immediately, including the farmers’ market where Cait and Kyle sell 90 percent of their products. Cait shares how “it was convenient because it took one thing off our list that we needed to figure out how to do –farming and having a newborn – but, of course, suddenly we had all this cheese and lamb that we weren’t going to be able to sell.” Their other revenue streams outside the market, which include restaurants and shops, were affected as well. Says Cait, “It wasn’t even really like we could suddenly divert it to other customers. They were also not buying.”
Coincidently, prior to the pandemic, in the spring of 2019 the couple joined a pilot food cooperative project comprising even small-scale farms in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. “We launched in early May and we sold out by the time we were starting in June. We had 200 families that were getting a box of food every other week until December,” Cait explains.By the way, these aren’t just your typical veggie boxes – instead, they bolster a delicious mixture of veggies, cheese, meats, eggs, and grains, all produced by the local farms from the cooperative. So that winter, after a hugely successful first season, the farm cooperative members sat down together to discuss ideas for 2020, but “then the pandemic hit, and very quickly food supply was becoming more scarce, people didn’t want to leave their house – you know, all the things that were happening in the very early days,”says Cait.All of the cheese and lamb that had initially been inaccessible to Cait and Kyle’s customers through the farmers’ market was now available in food boxes through the cooperative initiative.
“It almost seemed like a pivot but it was kind of serendipitous”
The successes of the pilot program combined with the timing of the pandemic and strong customer support for local farmers helped establish the farm cooperative now known as Farmhouse Food. Cait explains that the inspiration and intention was to “work together to reduce the work for the individual farm while selling products more efficiently.” While this came to fruition, it also became clear that the co-op was about more than just sharing resources and scaling up individual efforts – the “co-op also was a way for us to keep in touch with our friends when we couldn’t see anybody in person. We don’t have employees, so it’s just the two of us; it can often be pretty lonely working for yourself.” Not only did this model of farming help to make local foods more accessible, but it also became a supportive and caring community for the farmers – “it gives this built-in safety net of people that you can call on,” says Cait.
“The reason for existing is definitely cooperative, sort of like everything that we do is coming from there.”
Keeping cooperative at the core of everything they do, the team of farmers has a bright vision for the future, with hopes of connecting with other small-scale farmers, especially those who are just starting, as well as new customers. Cait and Kyle are also keeping their own customer base alive now that the farmers’ market has reopened.“We have a really wonderful group of regular customers who appreciate the products that we’re making.”Not only do they appreciate the products, but they appreciate the connections to Cait and Kyle.“They come to the market every week and they ask about Margot, or how are the sheep doing, or how many lambs we have now. It’s just kind of nice to be a part of something so personable,” says Cait, adding that “we have this piece of land and animals that people are kind of invested in. So it’s sort of working towards that too. It’s been nice to share it with people.”
Sharing with people is what Milkhouse Farm and Dairy is all about, no matter what changes arise. Indeed, Cait and Kyle have seen many changes since their first year of sheep farming, and more changes are on the way – for example, the husband-and-wife team are undertaking a new project to convert the heritage barn on their property into a new home and cheese factory. The point is that change doesn’t stop, nor do connections. In fact, it is the deep and multifaceted connections to land, sheep, and people that support Cait and Kyle and bring meaning to their farm endeavours.