Kitchener-Waterloo·The New Wave

Ontario cheesemakers work to cut down water use

An estimated 10,000 litres of water go into producing a single pound of cheese. Now, producers are looking for ways to reduce and improve their water use, with an eye to improving quality and sustainability.

It takes 2,000 litres to make 1 litre of milk, and 5 litres of milk to make 1 pound of cheese

Adam van Bergeijk and his family have just over 400 Holsteins on their dairy farm in New Hamburg, Ont. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Cheesemakers in Ontario are taking a hard look at their water use with an eye to improving quality and sustainability.

Though the industry is considered a "medium" water consumer by experts, an estimated 10,000 litres of water go into producing a single pound of cheese when the entire production line is taken into account. 

It takes approximately five litres of milk to create a pound of cheese, but factor in the water consumed by dairy cattle, the water used to grow the feed for the cows, washing and sterilization equipment and brining, and the litres quickly add up. 

"On a day like today when we're making cheese, we probably use between 4,000 and 5,000 litres of water," said Adam van Bergeijk, head cheese maker and owner of Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg, Ont.

"For the cows we use probably 25,000 to 35,000 litres a day. That's a lot of water."

That water comes from a well on the van Bergeijk farm. A couple of years ago, they were faced with a dilemma: if the family wanted to stay competitive and continue to grow the business, they were going to have to find a way to get more water. 

Mountainoak produces 18 types of gouda in a cheesemaking facility just steps from the milking barn. Milk is piped directly underground from one building to the other, where the cheese is aged on shelves from ceiling to floor. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

They hired a consultant, who helped them brainstorm different options including trucking water in as needed and drilling another, deeper well. They even looked at capturing the rain water from the roof of their barns.

That seemed like a good idea, at first, until they realized contaminated rainwater could be a problem if used in food production.

"Birds, they fly from A to Z, and you never know where they have [been] in-between," van Bergeijk said.

Cheesemakers big and small

These kinds of conversations are happening in dairies and cheese production facilities all over Canada, from small family-run operations like Mountainoak to national household brands like Gay Lea and Quality Cheese — whose ricotta was crowned Grand Champion at the 2013 Cheese Grand Prix. 

"We typically get back to: what job is the water doing for us?" explained Bruce Taylor, whose company Enviro-Stewards in Elmira, Ont., was contracted by both Gay Lea and Quality Cheese. 

You're saving the cheese here but it actually goes all the way up the chain ... backwards.- Bruce Taylor, Enviro-Stewards

"So what we do is we have these clamp-on ultrasonic meters and we can put them on any pipe in the factory, and with that we can get minute-by-minute: where is the water used."

They look at every step of the production line: milk receiving and the water used to clean delivery trucks and tanks, how transfer lines are flushed and cleaned, the way water is used to pasteurise the milk, where, when and how the curds and whey are separated — even the brine goes under the microscope. 

More often than not, said Taylor, the best place to start is at the end of the process, minimizing food waste. 

Bruce Taylor is the founder and president of Enviro-Stewards based in Elmira, Ont. (Enviro-Stewards)

"To make one litre of milk it takes 2,000 litres of water to grow the grain, to house the cow and all that kind of thing."

"So you're avoiding all of that water consumption, not even in the factory but back at the farm you can't see, where they're growing the milk, and the farm before that — where they're growing the grain. It's called 'embedded water,' so you're saving the cheese here, but it actually goes all the way up the chain ... backwards."

The work Enviro-Stewards did for Gay Lea looked at resource management overall, looking at electricity, gas and water. Taylor and his team found 11 different areas where energy and water use could be scaled back. If all were implemented, it would save Gay Lea more than $230,000 a year, with investments paid back within eight months.

"The paybacks on water conservation are faster than paybacks on energy, and the paybacks on food are faster than water or energy," Taylor said. 

"And, when you save food, you automatically save water and energy you used to make that food." 

Adam van Bergeijk, of Mountainoak Cheese, showing off nettle gouda that was produced that morning in his farm's production facility. It will later be brined and aged. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Mountainoak chooses 2nd well, reverse-osmosis

Mountainoak found they could save water by switching to a robotic milker, reusing the cheese brine and installed closed loop systems where they can. Water used to pre-cool the milk is also recycled and fed back to the cows as drinking water.  

Van Bergeijk ultimately did dig a second well and installed a reverse-osmosis system to take out the high mineral content in the local water source. That means the drinking water for their 400 Holsteins will be top notch, but some will go to waste. 

It's waste van Bergeijk can live with, though; he says hopefully it will mean a higher milk yield from the herd, allowing Mountainoak to produce more cheese without adding any more animals, and methane, to the farm. 

"The more you can do with less cows, the better it is for the environment."

For the van Bergeijks,the changes mean securing the health of their cows, the quality of their award-winning product — with consideration of the environment. But van Bergeijk also hopes it protects the legacy of the family business. 

"We have three children — they are all farming — and we have also 11 grandchildren. So I'm really looking to have a system that our children and grandchildren can be prosperous on the farm."

Cheesemakers in Ontario are taking a hard look at their water use with an eye to improving quality and sustainability. Though the industry is considered a "medium" water consumer by experts, an estimated 10,000 litres of water go into producing a single pound of cheese when the entire production line is taken into account. The CBC's Jackie Sharkey explains 6:21
This story is part of The New Wave, a week-long CBC radio and online series focused on those tackling Ontario's water woes. (CBC)

Read more in CBC's THE NEW WAVE series: 

About the Author

Jackie Sharkey

Associate Producer, CBC KW

Jackie Sharkey has worked all over the country with the CBC over the past decade, including Kelowna, Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, NU. She frequently reports on the arts and is particularly interested in stories where consumer and environmental issues intersect.

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