Artisan Flare, Noble Meadows Farm sets new bar for cheesemaking in Alberta
By Tim Kalinowski
Artisanship and agriculture have always gone together. Today, we use more economically-laden terms like “value-added” to explain the same concept, but essentially farmers have always made specialty products as a lucrative sideline to their main agricultural business. And if those sidelines are successful and popular enough, they can become the business. Such is the case at Noble Meadows Farm, whose award winning goat-cheese lines have taken on a life their own over the past eight years.
Owners Harvey and Carolyn Van Driesten first came into goat milking business by happenstance.
“We had a hog farm just before we got the goats, and the hog prices really dropped,” says Carolyn. “There was a little bit of desperation involved in the decision at the time. It was either that, sell the farm or something. We had kind of hit rock bottom so we had to do something drastic.”
The Van Driestens at first sold only the raw goat milk to one local buyer, but soon realized the greater profit to be made was on the value-added processing side of things.
“We bottle pasteurized milk, we make yogurt, and we make two types of cheese,” explains Carolyn. “The excess milk we ship to a dairy in B.C. When we first started, we started in farmers markets, which is great. You get the direct feedback from the customer … It was just really great to interact with your customers week to week. In the beginning we were making all kinds of different products. We made gouda, cheddar, drink yogurts, ice cream and just all kinds of things. But in the last four years we have stopped going to farmers markets and we just scaled back on so many different products. Now, we are just making basically do milk, yogurt, soft cheese and feta.”
In 2014 Noble Meadow Farms won Best Farmstead Cheese in Canada during the Canadian Cheese Awards, and were finalists in three other categories. This was a significant moment for the family, which helped crystallize their vision for the future of their business.
“When we won that award four years-ago, it was this incredible boost of confidence,” confirms Carolyn. “It really gave us that motivation to keep going. Obviously, we had a product that people really liked.”
The Van Driestens have since secured wholesale deals, and have entered the retail sector forcefully in Calgary, supplying their cheeses to Calgary Co-op stores. Carolyn, who is the cheesemaker of the business, still does much of the production work by hand. Harvey tends to the goats and the milking side of the operation.
“Our weakness has always been the marketing, with my husband working on the farm and me making the cheese,” confesses Carolyn. “My husband is better at it than me, but it is difficult to get out there and sell our own cheese; so we just recently working with a cheese broker and we are really excited at the difference that has already made. You should be seeing our cheese in more stores from now on.”
With more demand for their products growing, Carolyn says she and Harvey have been discussing the potential for increased automation in their dairy operations.
“We feel we have room to grow,” she states. “Up to this point, a lot of the cheesemaking and packaging has been done by hand. We are hoping to get some machinery going here in the next few years to make it less labour intensive. We have been holding back a little on expansion because of the hand work.”
The most popular product Noble Meadows Farm sells in undoubtedly their soft cheeses. The sell five lines of them: Plain, Herbs and Onion, Tomato and Garlic, Apricot Chili and Cranberry Spice. Carolyn says the increasing demand for goat cheese and milk is being driven by consumers in large urban centres across Canada, but those buying the products are not exactly who you would expect.
“The ones who are looking for our cheese are the new generation, the Foodie market, and a lot of women,” she says. “Women love goat cheese, and that is backed up by the statistics on who eats it. It is women from 30-50 who are one of your biggest markets.”
With this booming urban demand, says Carolyn, there are also expectations: Customers want very natural products, ethically raised and produced, and sourced as locally as possible. Noble Meadows Farms checks all these boxes.
“We raise our goats as naturally as possible,” she says. “We don’t use hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. In the summer time, they are out on pasture. In the winter we feed them locally-produced hay we have bought off of other farmers in the area or grown ourselves. That’s important to our customers, and an important part of our story. We are not organic, but we are as natural as possible and source everything we need as locally as possible.”
But outside of these considerations, Noble Meadow Farms also has an allure of something else truly special in their story: Farm-based, hand-made, artisan-style goat cheese, and other milk products, produced with love by the Van Driesten family of Nobleford, Alberta.
“When we got into this business we were trying to find out what products sell, and what people like. We figured that out, we got into some stores, then got hooked up with a wholesaler, and then it’s kind of went from there. It is a whole different lifestyle now then when we were hog farmers. We’re definitely busier now, and we have done all of this together with our six children.”