Sheep cheese business wins $10K Acadian entrepreneur prize

Gabriel and Deirdre Mercier of Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm are the 2018 Acadian Entrepreneurs of the year, taking home a $10,000 prize on the weekend.

'It was a really hard competition' says co-owner of Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm in North Rustico, P.E.I.

'It was a really hard competition,' says Gabriel Mercier, with his wife Deirdre as they won the $10,000 prize Saturday night. (Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm/Facebook)

Gabriel and Deirdre Mercier of Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm in North Rustico, P.E.I., have won a prestigious Acadian contest for 2018, taking home a $10,000 prize.

The couple was one of three finalists in the annual Dragons' contest, a francophone business development initiative of RDÉE Prince Edward Island.

"It was a really hard competition, we knew it wouldn't be easy to get it — we didn't know we were going to win," said Gabriel. "We were quite excited."

The couple began their sheep farm and cheese-making operation a few years ago after careers in the military, taking over Deirdre's childhood home — a hobby farm they transformed into a sheep operation. 

Gabriel's grandfather was an award-winning master cheese maker in Quebec, where he grew up, and they learned the craft from him.

Cheese facility in the works

Gabriel now travels to Mont-Carmel, P.E.I., to produce the cheese and yogurt in a rented facility, but the couple plans to build a processing facility on the farm this year.

Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm in North Rustico, P.E.I., makes sheep's-milk cheese and yogurt. (Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm/Facebook)

"Right now, we want to get our production more efficient," he said. 

They'll use the $10,000 prize to buy new equipment and hire some help both on the farm and for cheese making. 

The couple currently takes samples of their cheese to a dairy lab in Charlottetown and then wait three to five days for results, affecting their product's freshness. They plan to purchase their own testing equipment as well as an improved vacuum-sealing and a website upgrade.

The couple won $25,000 from the provincial government's Ignition Fund pitching competition in 2016, using the money to buy a cheese press and molds. Last year they were also finalists in the province's Food Xcel program, which helped them build valuable business contacts.

The sheep's-milk cheese can be found at a handful of local retailers in Charlottetown and Summerside, as well as at the farm itself in Rustico. 

Other finalists in this year's contest were Stéphanie St-Onge-Cornish of Summerside, who pitched an expansion of her business Blossom Foot Care, and Sylvain Gagné of Charlottetown who pitched an addition to his blueberry processing plant, Gagné Blueberries.

It's lambing season on the sheep farm right now. (Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm)

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Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email sara.fraser@cbc.ca