LOCAL KAWARTHA LAKES CHEESE, GLOBAL REACH: Mariposa Dairy achieves international success thanks to homegrown support.

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In the time it takes to read this article, Mariposa Dairy in Lindsay, Ontario will produce nearly 2,000 pieces of cheese at a remarkable rate of seven pieces per second. From humble and almost accidental beginnings in the 1980s, Mariposa is now the third largest goat and sheep cheese processor in North America.

It all started when co-founders Bruce and Sharon VandenBerg met in college. They married a short time later and, in 1985, bought a farm near his childhood home. It didn’t take long for people to start showing up on their doorstep, asking for goat cheese.

The previous owners of the farm raised goats and made small quantities of cheese in their kitchen. Inspired by the local interest and her background in food and nutrition, Sharon proposed starting a part-time business making cheese while also raising their young family on the farm.

“I never had a goat in my life,” says Bruce. “At the time it was very hard to find good goat cheeses in our area; you had to go down to Toronto to find it. We did our research and then talked to the bank to get some money…and that’s how we got going.”

By 1989, the VandenBergs built an 800 sq. ft. cheese plant for processing the milk supplied by their 30 goats. While it took some trial and error, with the errors mainly enjoyed by their dog (who got “really fat” as a result), Bruce and Sharon perfected their recipes and marked their first year in business with $7,000 in sales.

Today, Mariposa Dairy boasts a staff of 200 operating two facilities in the town of Lindsay, totaling over 80,000 sq. ft. of cheese production, shipping, and warehouse space. Their products are distributed in most Canadian grocery stores under private labels and the company is growing its market share in the United States with as much as 80 per cent of their cheese ending up south of the border. To keep up with demand, the VandenBergs purchase milk from 120 farms in Ontario, gobbling up more than half of the goats’ milk produced in the province.

“When we receive the milk, we pasteurize it and let it sit in a vat for 16 hours to turn into yogurt. It takes another 24 hours to pour it into cheese bags and squeeze the moisture out,” explains Bruce. “In two days, the cheese can be made, mixed, packaged and labeled.” Bruce’s saying is, “I can have hay that’s being fed to goats on Sunday, and I can have that cheese in a store in New York by Friday.”

Right place, right time, right partners

Along with a growing consumer market for goat dairy products since the 1990s, Bruce attributes much of Mariposa Dairy’s success to local partnerships and support within Kawartha Lakes. These include neighbours who provided interest-only loans for manufacturing equipment purchases and mentors who helped the VandenBergs learn how to structure a board of directors and deal with banks.

When it came time in 2007 to move production off the farm and into the town of Lindsay to a larger facility with more efficient equipment, a lease-to-own arrangement made the expansion financially feasible.

“If we never had those opportunities, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” says Bruce. “It’s unique thinking, outside-of-the-box opportunities and people trusting each other that makes this type of growth possible.”

One of the Vandenbergs four children became an engineer and designed their newest production plant with lots of room for continued expansion. The plant is outfitted with modern European production equipment. Funding and design support from the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) of Canada helped to bring the vision for an expanded plant to life.

Our goal is to have a carbon-neutral footprint, so the plant has been built with sustainability in mind. Measures in place include water reuse, recycling and upcycling by-products like sugar, and the use of solar panels to power operations.

Protecting the environment is important to the VandenBergs, who have a deep appreciation for the natural beauty of the Kawartha Lakes region.

“The region has been good to us. Especially during the pandemic, people realized that there’s lots of lakes and cottages in Kawartha Lakes that you can live in year round due to technology,” says Bruce. “It’s a great area to live, and once people get up here and drive around and enjoy the water, the fishing, the boating, the winter activities…why would you want to be in Toronto when you could be living up here?”

Most of Mariposa Dairy’s staff live within 30 kilometres of the plant, providing a significant boost to the local economy.

“70 per cent of the money that comes into the dairy stays within 100 miles of our dairy and 80 per cent of it stays within Ontario,” says Bruce. “That’s huge. Not very many companies can say that.”

Work-life balance and family time are also important values for the VandenBergs, who close their plant on Sunday as a day of rest for themselves and their employees.

Continuing to grow

For 2023, Mariposa Dairy will focus on growing their sheep cheese product lines, which currently account for just two percent of their production. In addition, there are efforts underway to streamline systems and improve efficiencies.

“One thing you can count on at Mariposa Dairy is that you’ll work from Monday to Saturday, but as for everything else, there is no guarantee,” says Bruce. “We are constantly trying new things.”

Their commitment to innovation is part of how the VandenBergs intend to leave a legacy of positive impact within the community.

“The business has outgrown way past what we ever thought it would,” says Bruce. “The reason we got here is we had people who believed in us, trusted us, and gave us opportunities. One of the reasons why we grow the way we are is we, in turn, are trying to give back to our staff and back to the Kawartha Lakes community. We feel that’s our responsibility. It’s been quite a go and there’s lots of potential for the future.”

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