It’s the talk of the town.
When word spread through Ripley, and north up Highway 21 to Kincardine, and riffled across the breadth of Bruce County that the Pine River Cheese and Butter Co-Operative had made the hard decision to close after 134 years in business, well, you can imagine the shock. Cottagers and townsfolk stampeded for the store and on Wednesday of this week it was like…What was it like? Here’s Ulrike Prehn, the co-op’s chief executive: “It’s Cheesemageddon in our store.”
Wednesday is Super Squeaky Cheese Curd Day, so the shop is commonly caught up in a midweek bustle. (Cheddar with caramelized onion is the most popular of the flavoured cheese curds.) Add to that the shattering news that the co-op is slated for closure and it’s no wonder the cheese is flying off the shelves. “We keep telling people we’re still here,” Prehn says. “The store will be open through Christmas.” But the 16-farmer-owned co-op will stop accepting milk at the end of this month, production will grind to a halt, and 25 people will be out of work. (“I think that doesn’t include me, so you can make it 26,” Prehn later adds.)
There are families, generation after generation, who have known no other cheese than Pine River. Premium cheese, made locally, from the milk of local dairy herds. Back in the day — this is one occasion when “back in the day” is a serviceable phrase — dads took daughters to the old Pine River building on 6th concession where customers cut their own cheese from the block. Thirty-five cents a pound. These relationships are lifelong.
A ravaging fire in the autumn of 1981 took out the entire operation at its first location on the banks of the Pine River. And another in 2010 at a new facility at a new location was structurally devastating yet left millions of dollars worth of cheese inventory, in cold storage at the far side of the plant, largely untouched. Still, the disruption in distribution meant a reduction in market share. Not to mention the ever-shifting marketplace, at least since the 1990s, that favours big, multinational players. Some of the small dairy farms that were shareholders in the co-operative closed or were consolidated.
Yet Pine River forged relationships with the likes of Sobeys, Safeway and Foodland, as well as selling directly to restaurants, pubs and food trucks.
Lauren Morris, who runs the Cheesy Monkii food truck in the Pine River parking lot, says she remembers buying Pine River cheese in Victoria, B.C., when she visited that city a few years back. So why would anyone think there would come a day when Pine River would no longer be on the shelf? Two years ago she established Cheesy Monkii (there’s no explanation for the spelling). This weekend’s Cheesy Monkii special: apple butter pulled pork tacos with melted cracked black pepper Pine River curds. With a serving of mac ‘n’ cheese on the side. Morris uses only Pine River cheeses: Monterey on sandwiches; cheddar in the jalapeno poppers; white curds to be deep fried in a Panko crust; smoked Havarti on the smoked stack burger.
A week ago she heard the news of the pending closure. “I was floored,” she says. “It always appeared to be doing so well.”
What’s she going to do? “I think I might stock up here so I have some for next season. I never thought that this was something I’d have to figure out.” Cheesemageddon will continue. Pine River’s run-rate calculation — how long their inventory will last — may well fall short. “I like the local stuff,” Morris adds.
Ulrike Prehn resists digging too deeply into the specifics of what has worked against the Pine River operation. Increased costs, of course. Therefore low margins, naturally. The fight for market share, of course. The ongoing pressure to produce more for less. “The board fought tooth and nail and the patrons fought tooth and nail to keep the co-operative open,” she says. “Many of the patrons — those are the members, the shareholders of the co-operative — many of them are fourth-, fifth-generation owners and participants in the co-operative.” (Two of the current group of 16 are non-active, having sold their dairy herds.)
The co-op was incorporated in the autumn of 1939. “Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Some of them were cheesemakers, some of them helped with packaging the cheese.” Decade after decade after decade.
Prehn refuses to “get political.” She doesn’t want to point fingers. Pressed on the topic of government assistance — there has been lots of federal money sloshing around for other operations in the food sector — she says this: “We have not been given any grants. I know there are some other factories that have received grants but we have not…We did apply for something but we weren’t successful in achieving a significant enough contribution that would have been of considerable assistance to avoid our current outcome.”
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Only at the end of the conversation does Prehn break down. “I can only tell you that it’s very, it’s very, it’s very devastating.” It’s as tough to get a sentence out as it is to get a good night’s sleep. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. It’s one more small business that’s faced the challenge of the times. It is what it is.”
She urges consumers to take a stand. “If I could leave you with these words, buy local, buy Ontario, buy Canada.”
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