Island sheep farmers milking their way into cheese and yogurt market

A couple in North Rustico, P.E.I., is going back to their family roots to create a new line of cheese and yogurt products made from sheep's milk.

'I got the passion from my grandfather and Quebec too'

The Merciers now have a flock of 135 dairy sheep and will start milking again in April. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

A couple in North Rustico, P.E.I. is going back to their family roots to create a new line of cheese and yogurt products made from sheep's milk.

"Sheep farming comes from our desire to make cheese, it was more about cheese than sheep," explained Gabriel Mercier, who co-owns Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm, along with his wife Deirdre.

"We're the only ones making sheep's milk yogurt in the Maritimes and our grilling cheese, the only one in the Maritimes," he said.

Family connections

The couple met while working for the military in Nova Scotia. Gabriel's grandfather was an award-winning master cheese maker in Quebec, where he grew up, so when they were looking at life after the Forces, their thoughts turned to cheese.

The ultimate goal is to have a cheese house at the farm but for now Gabriel takes the milk to Mont-Carmel, P.E.I., to make the cheese and yogurt. (Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm/Facebook)

"I got the passion from my grandfather and Quebec too, I've got a culture for cheese as well and I love cheese myself," explained Mercier. 

While on parental leave with their first son, the couple spent six months in Quebec, learning from a cheese maker.

The final piece of the puzzle was the decision to move to Deirdre's home in North Rustico and transform her father's hobby farm into a sheep operation. 

"This is where I grew up, so it's very special to me that we're able to keep working here," said Deirdre Mercier, a descendant of the Doirons who first settled in the area in the late 1700s.

'A long two years'

Their flock arrived on P.E.I. in February 2015, during P.E.I.'s infamous Snowmaggedon.

The Merciers met while working with the military in Nova Scotia. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"It was a lot of hard work," said Deirdre, who shares the family's progress on a blog called babies n'sheep.

"You just have to keep going, you have no choice when things are hard. You still have to get up and feed the animals."

That was just the start of a steep learning curve, including many delays.

Costly delays

"The main thing is everything takes longer than it will take and if it takes longer, there are costs involved with that," said Gabriel.

Milking at the farm will resume once the lambing season is over. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

For example, they thought they'd be able to milk the entire season in 2016, starting in June. Instead, their new milking parlour will be operational in April 2017.

Last summer, they were able to produce enough cheese and yogurt to sell at a few retail locations — enough to land them $25,000 from the P.E.I. government's Ignition Fund.

Milking magic

Their unique milking parlour will allow the Merciers to produce a steady supply of cheese and yogurt. It has entry and exit ramps from the barn, with room for 24 sheep to be milked.

The new milking parlour will dramatically speed up the time it takes to milk the flock, the Merciers say. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"Last year it would take me about two hours to do 24," said Gabriel. "Now I'm expecting to do 130 in an hour and a half."

The couple is also working on a retail outlet where they will sell their sheep's milk products, as well as wool, and viewing areas where visitors can see the sheep and the milking parlour. 

'Attention to detail'

For now, Mercier travels to Mont-Carmel, P.E.I., to produce the cheese and yogurt but the ultimate goal is build a processing facility on the farm.

The wool from the sheep will also be available for sale at the farm. (Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm/Facebook)

"To make the best cheese, my grandfather was always saying, is attention to detail so you have to have a certain control over every step of the way," he explained.

"We know here how the animals are treated, what they eat, we know they're not stressed out."

Business and family grow

As the business has grown, so has the Mercier family, with the arrival of a second son, Maurice, in December 2016.

"Being home and then I get to see them every day — the military didn't allow me to do that," said Gabriel.

Bringing the family connections full circle, the Merciers have named their sheep's milk grilling cheese Alexis Doiron, in honour of Deirdre's ancestor, the first Doiron to settle in Rustico.

"We really liked the story and we thought it would be a good name for the cheese,' the couple say of their grilling cheese — called Alexis Doiron in honour of Deirdre's ancestor. (Ferme Isle Saint-Jean Farm/Facebook)