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On-farm processing dream perseveres through adversity

Mistyglen revived plans to process milk during the pandemic, and after a tornado wrecked its barn

Kadie, left, and Maddie Pettit hold the newly-unfurled banner for the Mistyglen Creamery on-farm processing facility, inside the family’s Belmont-area dairy barn. The barn was rebuilt following tornado damage in the summer of 2020.
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A venture that had been set aside “indefinitely” by a Belmont-area dairy farm several years ago received a full reconsideration during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result Mistyglen Creamery now aims to sell its first on-farm processed milk and yogurt in late 2021.

Why it matters: An increase in interest in local foods during the pandemic is driving farmers to consider how they can take advantage of that demand.

The news comes months after the 55-head Mistyglen Holsteins herd was forced to relocate to a neigbhouring farm due to damage from an EF1 tornado.

One cow and one calf succumbed to injuries from that storm, and the farm was struck by a smaller tornado several weeks later, wrecking roof trusses that sat awaiting installation atop the under-reconstruction dairy barn.

“It has been a wild year,” said a new Twitter feed established in early January for what will become known as Mistyglen Creamery. But “despite the added chaos of rebuilding our milking barn,” the farm has embarked on a “journey towards processing our own milk.”

The 265-acre farm is owned by brother and sister Tom and Suzanne Pettit, with the dairy barn located across the road from the property first settled by the Pettit family in 1816.

Tom’s wife Kris — currently working full-time as a geriatric nurse — has been “the driving force” behind the on-farm processing initiative… but she and the rest of the family (Tom and Kris’s two daughters, as well as Tom and Suzanne’s parents are also involved) had to put the idea on the back burner for years before the decision to move ahead.

“Five or six years ago, discussions were had around ways for the farm to diversify in order to allow me to come home and work on the farm full-time, which has always been my aspiration,” Kris explained. “Many options (were) considered, however when we came across on-farm dairy processing, we knew this was a unique opportunity.”

That led to Mistyglen agreeing to join a Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) pilot project, through which the marketing board provided support for business development and financial planning, and in return DFO could use the lessons learned to aid subsequent on-farm processing applicants to pursue their dreams.

It was a version of that program that facilitated the launch of now well-known on-farm success stories Sheldon Creek Dairy, Miller’s Dairy, and Limestone Organic Creamery.

Participation in the program helped solidify the Pettit family’s assessment that on-farm processing could be in their future.

“In keeping with our farm motto of ‘a lifetime dedicated to quality,’ we knew this was something for us,” Kris said. But the process showed them that they weren’t ready for that “future” quite yet and the financial payback wasn’t there.

“So we decided to set this venture aside indefinitely.”

Locked down in early 2020, though, Kris says the family reflected on the farm’s recovery from the two windstorms, and took time to “regroup and reassess… and lo and behold, on-farm processing made its way back into the conversation.”

Two of the keys, she said, were “downscaling the former business plan to match our farm size, (and) re-evaluating the products we wanted to process.” They “replotted (the) numbers in our cash flow projections, (and) it was then we knew our dream was within reach.”

On Jan. 1, the family posted a video to Facebook and Twitter showing Tom, Kris and their daughters unfurling a Mistyglen Creamery banner outside the newly-reconstructed barn. The tagline beneath the business name on the banner reads: “Homespun Milk.”

“Through adversity we find out so much about ourselves,” said Kris. “Our planning for the creamery was well on its way (when the June 10 tornado struck) and, in fact, our first meeting with the OMAFRA dairy plant specialist was arranged two days (later). With so many uncertainties, each of us were left to our own thoughts as we forged ahead with clean-up. While helping to remove trees and branches from our pasture so our heifers could regain their ground, my phone went off and it was from Suzanne with this brilliant idea for a catchphrase — ‘Homespun Milk.’ It was perfect and will always be a reminder, no matter the challenge, we at Mistyglen will live our dreams each and every day.”

In the initial stages, Kris will serve as plant manager and the labour for processing will be provided by the family. “Without a doubt,” she said, “we look forward to building our customer base to hopefully expand our work force in the years to come. Adding even more to our local economy by providing employment opportunities is one of our business objectives.”

Mistyglen’s initial product line-up will be full fat cream-top milk, full fat cream-top chocolate milk, yogurt, kefir and cheese curds. Next steps following the commencement the start of production include the construction of an on-farm store.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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