James Geneau

< Back

Ruth Klahsen Says Flock Ewe!

Member Rating

By James Geneau

A wall of colorful chevre cups at Monforte Dairy in Stratford.

There is something magical in the air this summer.  So many changes and so many good things happening in the local food movement.  Everywhere you look, there is a new story emerging about triumph, perseverance, and dedication.  Last weekend, I had the opportunity to witness one of these great stories in action and it left me feeling warm and fuzzy inside.  You see, whenever I meet a person dedicated to good food and willing to take on big business and politics head on, I just want to hug them and get on their bus with support.  Last weekend, that person was Ruth Klahsen.

Ruth is the big cheese at Monforte Dairy, one of Ontario’s most celebrated artisan cheese producers.  She is dedicated to her craft, has a “kiss my ass” attitude when it comes to people trying to stop her, and is a visionary entrepreneur.  To her, cheese is the greatest expression of man’s ability to take god’s gifts and create something both delicious and life fulfilling.  She is not afraid of profanity, gets giddy at the opportunity to discuss anything related to chevre, and looks great in a hair net.  If circumstances were different, she would be just the kind of gal I’d love to marry.

Monforte has been on the scene in Ontario for a couple of years now as one of those underground artisan cheeses everyone had heard about but had limited access to.  Only the “in crowd” knew her personally and loved to have parties with Ruth where she showcased her latest creations.  Making cheese, especially raw goat cheese is a difficult task in Ontario.  This is the land of big business agriculture where cheese isn’t made in small artisanal batches but in large blocks for global distribution.  In Quebec, you can find artisan cheese in almost every region of the province.  In Ontario, not so much.  So when the time came for Monforte to expand and become a true artisan cheese company of a larger –scale, the bank doors didn’t exactly swing wide open for Ruth.

Starting a bigger cheese operation takes work and lots of money.  This isn’t something you simply decide to do in your garage one night after a couple of beers while browsing through a mail-order catalogue from Vermont.  Equipment, facilities, and raw-milk suppliers need to be procured.  Regulatory and legal procedures need to be examined and complied with an endless amount of paperwork to be filled out, copied, faxed, and notarized.  To help out, Ruth has brought in one of the best in the business, a man by the name of Neville McNaughton, a dairy consultant working out of St. Louis, Missouri.

Neville is an interesting man.  A wild graying pony-tail and a heavy New Zealand accent compliment this very tall man with a passion for cheese making.  At 50 years of age, Neville has 34 years in the dairy and cheese industry and has traveled to many parts of the world, manufactured a wide range of cheeses and understands them not as a series of steps in a process but as the result of nature’s intent.  According to Neville, “nature provided us the means to make great cheese, understanding and finding the harmony that exists in these natural processes is what leads to great cheese without stress”.  And so, Neville has joined Ruth in helping to execute two great projects, the establishment of Monforte Dairy and the curriculum for the cheese school, another passion for Ruth.

Monforte Renaissance 2018 is the suitable name given to the efforts of Ruth to take Monforte to the next level in its history.  To do this, she needed cash, lots of it.   She turned to the banks and they refused to help when the debt-to-equity calculators sitting on a server on Bay Street sent back a resounding “do not pass go” to the bank officer in Stratford.  Banks are a business and you have to understand that they are there to make money.  If the formula for credit does not work out, many dreams for success are crushed.  Not so for rugged ol’ Ruth.  When the traditional methods for financing failed, she turned to an innovative alternative, community supported agriculture or CSA.  The concept of a CSA is relatively new in Canada; however, it has been a big trend in the US for many years.  Essentially, consumers, restaurateurs, and retailers buy shares in a farm for an ongoing supply of fresh food.  In many cases, each $1.00 in subscription represents a $1.50 or $2.00 in actual value in terms of produce, meat, fruits or in this case, cheese.  The model serves two purposes.  First, it provides consumers with a reliable and secure source of farm-fresh food they can feel comfortable buying since they know where it comes from.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it ensures the farmer has a steady and reliable source of revenue for planting, nurturing, and harvesting their goods.  It is a win-win situation and something many farmers in Ontario have started to notice as a solution for keeping the farm alive.

For Ruth, the Monforte CSA represented an opportunity to raise the money she needed to expand the business and keep doing what she loves, making great cheese.  The plan for success is very strategic.  On January 2nd, 2018, all of these efforts must come together.  She has already planned her big hootenanny to celebrate the new business and the goal for raising funds via the CSA is well underway.  Subscriptions are open to the public and pretty straightforward.  For $1,000 you get $1,500 worth of Monforte cheese over 5 years and two baskets worth $150 each year.   For $500 you get $750 of Monforte Cheese over 5 years and two $75 baskets of cheese each year.  And finally, for as little as $200, you get $250 worth of Monforte cheese over 5 years - but no basket.  However, it is still a great value given that Ruth’s cheeses cost less than the imported and dull alternatives you would find in your local supermarket.

To date, Monforte Dairy has raised $210,000 of the $500,000 they need to build their business.  They have also had some great support from Perth Community Futures.  They have launched an innovative campaign with a local brand-guru in Stratford named Ron Bernard.  “Flock Ewe” may sound like a deeply political statement to the banks and government policy that had tried to keep Ruth down, however, its origins have nothing to do with it.  According to Ron, “the team was sitting at a table brainstorming Ruth’s ideas for a cheese school to be tied to Monforte Dairy, a sort of Cheese University if you will.”  Ruth refers to her family at Monforte as her “flock” and the idea landed on the table that the school should be more of a “flock university” or “Flock U”.  The rest is marketing genius.

Inside the new facility in Stratford where cheese magic will hapen.

With the success of the CSA, many government officials and banks are now having a change of heart for Ruth.  After all, when your business plan is able to raise $210,000 from 440 people crazy about cheese, it doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to figure out that there is something special here investment-wise.  But right now, Ruth is focused on her cheese, her business strategy, and what the future holds.  She recently secured a new building at 49 Griffith Road in Stratford, Ontario.  This coming Saturday, they will begin selling cheese from the new facility in addition to their booths at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and the Stratford Farmers’ Market.

Last Saturday, Ruth invited me to join her and her current CSA members for a good old fashioned pig roast and a tour of the new building.  Here, we sampled some of her great cheeses including my personal favorite, her Cups o’ Chevre.  These little cups of heaven come as plain goat’s milk chevre or blended with figs, sundried tomatoes, or an artisan Québec-based pesto.  A surprise for me, given my absolute disgust of blue cheese, was her Night Satin, one of their new goat cheeses with ash.  Imagine a very light blue cheese perfect for burgers and salads.  I looked at the blue-grey veins and thought I would be ill.  However, one taste and I was pleasantly surprised.  I immediately found myself thinking about Cobb salad and a tear came to my eye as I imagined the thrill of finally being able to enjoy one without the disgust of having blue cheese sprinkled on top.  Well, maybe it wasn’t that moving but still I was pleasantly surprised by the mild taste and creamy texture.  What also surprised me was the price.  A circle of Night Satin retailed for $8.00 while a log was a mere $6.00.  How could this be so affordable?

According to Ruth, “my prices are not about prestige or snobbery; I have no time for it”.  She continued to say that “I want my cheeses to be enjoyed by all and there is no need to make it unaffordable just to be elitist”.  That’s Ruth in a nutshell.  Proud of her craft, down to earth, and taking no bullshit.  I spent the rest of the afternoon touring the dairy building, chatting with some of the farmers, the CSA members, and her three sons.  By 4:00pm, the place was packed with cheese-loving foodies and the centre table was swarming with hungry hands gobbling up Ruth’s latest creations.  It was inspiring to see so many people as passionate about local and delicious artisan cheese as Ruth and it was at this moment that I realized that there was in fact something magical happening in the good food movement.

A lovely smoked pig served to the CSA members at the big celebration.

Dedication, loyalty, and perseverance are essential for leaders and visionaries when an industry is forming.  Remember the internet boom on the 1990s and all those kids with big ideas looking for ways to make the world a better place using the worldwide web?  Well, the same thing is happening in local food every day.  For years, it was something promoted by government with tax-payer dollars.  Then, over the past 2-3 years, something magical has happened.  An industry has started to evolve.  Everywhere you look, entrepreneurs with a passion for good food are building successful businesses and they are thriving.  It has taken some time but some great people are finally helping to build profitable and self-sustaining businesses focused on local food and guess what, the consumers are taking note.

As I noted earlier, Ruth is interested in the creation of a school program tied to the dairy.  The plans are to start a cheese making school which will start in September 2018 in conjunction with the Stratford Chefs’ School.  What is ironic is that the concept of Monforte’s Renaissance 2018 will probably be a lesson taught in business textbooks around the world 10 years from now.  After all, it is a perfect example of innovative entrepreneurship and creating a business financing model for the future development of an industry.   In fact, the Richard Ivey School of Business is already looking at them as a case-study.  Bravo Ruth!  Now start milking!


BIG fan of her products....didn't know about the CSA...now I will have to join!! Great article!
Post Reply By Kathleen in TORONTO on 7/17/2009 8:37:27 AM

«  1  »