by Andrew Campbell
When it comes to most Canadians’ connection to the farm, in the majority of cases there is at least a step or two between what is produced on the farm, and the food we enjoy. For eggs, they are cleaned and sized at a grading station before going to the store. For grain, it is likely to go to a mill to be turned into usable ingredients for other foods. And for dairy, the vast majority of milk is picked up from a farm and delivered to a processor to be pasteurized, homogenized and packaged. But in a few cases, the farm decides to step out on a limb and process and market their products directly to consumers. That is the case for Sheldon Creek Dairy.
They are a family-owned processor that also happens to have their family-owned farm next door. For the denHaan family, processing their own milk seemed like a great way to expand their business and to produce and market their own products. One of their products is a seasonal favourite: eggnog. So, come for a tour of the processing plant that is all about the Christmas season when we arrived for a visit!
Where does Sheldon Creek Dairy get the milk to make eggnog?
We process milk and milk products. The milk comes from our family dairy farm, known as Haanview Farms. Both the farm and the dairy are owned and operated by my parents John and Bonnie den Haan, my sister Emily and myself (Marianne).
The farm milks 55 cows, which my dad and sister are both in charge of. They manage everything from growing the feed for the cows to taking care of and milking the animals. My mom and I look after the processing side in the Sheldon Creek Dairy plant. There are only a few places in Ontario in which the processing and dairy farm are side by side.
How often is milk transported to Sheldon Creek Dairy?
Every week, a couple times a week, milk is moved across the driveway from the farm to the processing facility to make whole milk products. The most unique part about our products is that the cream rises to the top. That’s because we don’t homogenize the milk and only minimally pasteurize it. It’s really as close to raw milk as legally possible in Ontario. Because of this people love using it to make their own cheeses or their own yogurts.
Why did you decide to process your own milk? And where does it go?
In 2012, Sheldon Creek Dairy opened our doors and at that time we were just making whole milk and a dark chocolate milk. We now have a wide range of products like yogurt, kefir, Labneh, strawberry milk and eggnog. Sheldon Creek Dairy now distributes to about 280 locations across Ontario. Most of them are independently owned and operated. They love working with other family businesses. The locations range from local general stores to a Foodland grocery store and even some larger stores, like Whole Foods, as well as, farmer’s markets. We go to quite a few farmer’s markets around the area in the summertime as well as the Saint Lawrence Market in Toronto year round.
Let’s talk a little bit about the processing plant. When I walked in, everything was getting hosed down. Why?
With any food, you have to make sure that everything is very clean and Sheldon Creek Dairy triple checks and ensures that the cleaning process is working properly. Because of the strict rules for producing milk Canada has some of the best milk in the world.
First, we clean all of our production facilities. This includes any of the tanks or fillers, and of course, the bottles that milk goes into. Once the processing plant is cleaned we are ready to go, then we move the milk.
We move the milk from the farm to the processing facility; typically on the same day it will be processed. If you want milk fresher, you’d have to have a cow in your backyard. Once the milk is moved to the dairy, we pasteurize the milk for 16 seconds and then cool it down to four degrees, put it into two bulk tanks and then start filling the bottles.
How do the eggnog bottles get filled?
Our dairy uses a rotary bottle filler with glass bottles. Bottles are put through the cleaning process until they pass inspection. It is unique for a dairy operation to have glass bottles. Our bottles have a deposit on them and all the bottles that go out, come back to be reused.
The returned bottles go through the washing cycle and once washed, they put them on the line and do quality checks on those bottles to ensure that they’re perfect before the milk or eggnog goes into them. The bottles then go around a conveyor and are filled with a gravity fill and then are capped, labeled with the best before date and checked before packing. Bottles are transferred into new crates and stored in a refrigerated until they’re ready for the delivery truck the next morning.
How do you make eggnog?
All of our ingredients are added through a funnel and then pumped into the milk as it circulates. Once it’s mixed, then it again goes to the pasteurization stage and gets cooled off and bottled.
Eggnog has really become one of the products Sheldon Creek Dairy is known for. We go through quite a bit of dairy product this time of year. Our eggnog is unique as it’s made with whole milk. This makes for eggnog that is not as thick in texture as conventional eggnog you might find on the grocery shelf. People who are not eggnog lovers, and I admit I’m one of them, tell us they like our eggnog because they like the taste and texture compared to typical eggnog.
With any small business, you have to be innovative. If we want to succeed, we need to be innovative and listen to our customers. When customers request new products, we look into them and make small amounts to try it out on the market. Because we are able to make smaller quantities, we can get creative and innovative with our products, and that’s really what happened with the eggnog.
What made you want to come back to the farm?
In my family, there’s a rule that you have to leave the farm for four years and gather up a toolbox of skills. After that, if you are ready to come back to the farm, then there would be a place. I love cows but didn’t want to be milking them every day. I love teaching people about their food and so for me, coming back to the farm wasn’t so much about being right on the farm. The reason why I came home was because this value added opportunity presented itself and was an opportunity to be involved in food and farming. And what’s better than working with your family?
Full video by FreshAirFarmer Andrew Campbell’s Dinner Starts Here series