Like every successful business owner, Wilma Mol keeps a keen eye on the next opportunity to keep her dairy processing business innovative and competitive. And her latest business booster involves a better way to seal their farm-churned butter sold in pot-bellied glass jars.

Wilma, Nicole and Jim Mol of Riverbend Farm and owners of Slate River Dairy Photo credit: Cynthia Vis, Sunny Creek Studio

Mol owns and operates Riverbend Farm with her husband Jim, just south of Thunder Bay in Neebing, Ontario. They purchased the dairy farm in 1996 with about 160 acres and a 32-head milking cow herd. Over the years, they expanded the barn to hold their growing herd of 55 milking cows. Then the farm operation took on a big business expansion in 2015 with the addition of an on-farm processing facility where they make and market their Slate River Dairy whole milk and milk products including yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, butter and cheese.

Farming in Northern Ontario brings its own unique challenges for businesses like Slate River Dairy, and the price tag to continually upgrade and renovate can be a deterrent. “We are always faced with extra high shipping costs,” says Mol. “So, any funding we can apply for helps us be more competitive with companies that aren’t faced with similar shipping costs.”

She is also keenly aware of the time between investment and bottom-line benefits. “In farming and in processing, you don’t see monetary benefits right away from innovative projects and the huge upfront cost can deter you from taking on a new project,” says Mol. That was one of the reasons she began to look into funding opportunities, such as the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (the Partnership), to help bring new ideas to life for their farm-based business.

In 2017, they applied for funding to help purchase a special butter churn from The Netherlands. The churn allowed them to diversify with cultured butter made from Canadian milk to compete with imports. “The churn opened the opportunity to broaden our market, making cultured butter in Northern Ontario, and we are the only business in North America using this type of churn.”

Butter and Greek yogurt are sold in glass jars. But the lids that came with the glass jars were not tamper proof and they tried hand sealing them but that was inconsistent and labour intensive. “The sealing issue was a big food safety concern for us, especially since we wanted to have this butter sold to retailers besides our own store and at farmers’ markets,” says Mol. That’s when she applied for cost-share funding from the Partnership to help purchase their new shrink tunnel, improving food safety for their uniquely packaged butter and yogurts, and further advancing their business.

Butter jars at Slate River Dairy go through the new shrink tunnel to seal the product, improving food safety and advancing the business.

The new equipment provides a tamper-proof seal by shrinking and sealing a plastic band around the lid and jar. They also use the system on jars of strained yogurt, also known as yogurt cheese, and cottage cheese.

“One of the advantages of selling butter in glass is that it won’t pick up odours,” explains Mol. “Butter is very sensitive to odours in the fridge, so our airtight seal provided an advantage over butter sold in paper.”

Mol says the Partnership cost-share funding application process is efficient. “The online form lets you complete the application over a few days. The check box list helps ensure all the documents are included. And working through the application also means we can start to see how the change will benefit the business.”

Applications for the next Canadian Agricultural Partnership intake are November 15 to December 6. For more information visit: https://www.ontariosoilcrop.org/canadian-agricultural-partnership/

The Canadian Agricultural Partnership is a five-year investment by Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments to encourage innovation, competitiveness and sustainability in Canada’s agriculture industry.

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