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Little Qualicum Cheeseworks connects consumers to food throughout the year

Alice Guthrie for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 November 2018
The Gourlay farm is open for visitors

Clarke and Nancy Gourlay had been living in Switzerland for several years, where they had experienced magnificent Swiss cheeses.

When they returned to Canada with their three young sons in the late ’90s, they set out to learn the ancient art of cheesemaking, realizing a possible niche market for high-quality artisan cheese.

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Although new to dairy farming, they were able to get a start via the cottage industry program in 2001. This program offered “lease-to-own” quota for 15 years for the purpose of producing and processing dairy products on-site.

They settled on Vancouver Island, where they had family connections, at first renting a dairy farm and using refurbished school portables for their cheese plant, which they called Little Qualicum Cheeseworks.

Three years later, they had purchased Morningstar Farm, situated between the retirement communities of Parksville and Qualicum Beach.

From the inception of their business, their vision was to be an agri-tourism operation along with dairy and cheese production.

A strong consumer trend towards locally sourced food worked to their advantage, occurring at an opportune time for them. People wanted to know where their food came from and how it was produced.

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The Gourlays’ website reads, “Sharing our farm with the public has always felt like an immense privilege, and our passion is to see others inspired and empowered to know where their food comes from, how it’s produced and why that matters.” They started farm tours and cheese sales.

As time has gone on, their boys have become involved in their business. Sons Raymond and John both work with their parents, while their youngest son, Kevin, is a full-time student at Vancouver Island University, where he is studying biology and hopes to become a large-animal veterinarian.

Kevin, is a full-time student, but can be found on the farm from time to time.

He is a farrier already and runs a horse-shoeing practice, so his involvement with the home farm is much less than his brothers.

The purchased farm had an ancient double-four parlour. Raymond comments they were told it was the oldest parlour in use on the island.

This made for inefficient work and, in 2016, it was replaced by the newest system on the island – a freestall barn with an automated milking system.

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Their dairy herd consists of Holstein and Brown Swiss and crosses of these. The Gourlays breed for hardy genetics and interest, as the public enjoys seeing different kinds of cows.

They milk 50 head, and all the milk is used in their cheese operation. They feed grass silage, which they find produces superior flavor, which is important for cheeses and fresh milk.

John works with Pete, a valued employee, in managing the farm portion of the business.

John Gourlay checks in on the maternity pen

Pete was the first employee hired who knew the dairy business, and Raymond says he took the farm to a new level, adding that John and Pete together do a fantastic job.

Each morning the fresh milk – about 1,750 litres per day – is pumped from the farm to the cheese plant, and a new batch of cheese is made.

The cheese is in high demand and is sold all over British Columbia. The Gourlays make about a dozen varieties. Raymond is in charge of this part of the operation, along with three other people.

Raymond is working on maximizing efficiency in the cheese plant. He is also involved in the marketing aspect of the business.

Their newest enterprise, MooBerry Winery, started in 2007. Vintner Phil Charlebois started making wine for a hobby, then took formal training in the craft.

He creates fruit wines from the fruit grown on the farm and from around the province. Raymond states their “goal is to highlight delicious fruits and berries from around B.C. and to create excellent pairing opportunities with the cheeses.”

Clarke and Nancy Gourlay had a desire to make high-quality artisan cheese

He adds there is really good synergy between the two products. Their wines, a much smaller enterprise than the cheese, are sold only on Vancouver Island. Most is sold from the on-farm store, with tastings offered from the wine counter there.

People are welcome to visit the farm, cheese plant and winery for self-guided tours, which feature a quirky tour map (Raymond’s description) and entertaining and informative signage.

They can watch a live feed of cows being milked in the robot or observe cheesemaking in process from an observation window.

Kids can do a scavenger hunt, finding specific animals or buildings. A petting area is inhabited by friendly farm animals – sheep, goats, potbellied pigs and more.

There is also a guided tour option, most often utilized by school groups. People are able to hike a trail around the 90-acre property, picnic on the grounds and taste-test the wine and cheese, or enjoy a glass of wine or farm-fresh latte with a gourmet panini or cheese platter in the seasonal “calfe.”

There is lots to do for family fun. The farm is open to visitors seven days each week, all year-round.

Several events are hosted each year – a Summer Jazz, Tea and Cheesecake event appeals to retirees in the area, and a Calving Festival appeals to families with kids.

Coming up quickly now is the Christmas on the Farm event, scheduled for Dec. 15.

This is a family friendly, relaxed environment with live Christmas music, a bonfire, free popcorn and hot chocolate, wagon rides, miniature horse carriage rides, a poutine truck serving their own curds, crafts and Christmas storytelling.

Best of all, it is a free event. Raymond estimates about 1,500 people will show up over the course of the five-hour event.

Morningstar Farm has also established Canada’s first milk-on-tap dispenser. People can bring their own clean empty jugs and, for $2 per litre, take home pasteurized, non-homogenized whole milk.

This feature helps the Gourlays increase business in the off season, as customers appreciate this opportunity.

Clarke and Nancy are still active in the business with their sons. Clarke is the general business manager and is preparing for farm succession in the future.

He is also a newly elected municipal area director for the Regional District of Nanaimo. He enjoys hiking in his spare time. Nancy is involved in training, problem-solving and spends as much time as she can with her horses.

Nancy is involved in training, problem-solving and spends as much time as she can with her horses.

John enjoys motorcycles and woodworking in his spare time. Kevin, as a full-time student, has no spare time.

Raymond spends time with his wife, Rebecca, and their two young children, Kieran, 4, and Dahlia, 1. He and Rebecca are also involved in music, largely at their local church.

The Gourlays have succeeded in establishing themselves as a part of the local food movement, as evidenced by this statement from Danielle Berg of Victoria, British Columbia, “Little Qualicum cheese is very popular in Victoria, or at least in my social circle.

When I recently bought their raclette for a baby shower, it was the first food item to disappear off the table.

I personally love buying local and I think most people on Vancouver Island value and support local small businesses, so when asked if I knew of this small business, I confirmed, then immediately got a craving for this delicious cheese.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: The farm is open for visitors, and they regularly host events throughout the year. Here, Raymond Gourlay gives a tour to some farm guests. 

PHOTO 2: The Gourlays’ youngest son, Kevin, is a full-time student, but can be found on the farm from time to time. He is pictured with his nephew, Kieran Gourlay. 

PHOTO 3: John Gourlay checks in on the maternity pen as part of his role in managing the farm part of the enterprise. 

PHOTO 4: Clarke and Nancy Gourlay had a desire to make high-quality artisan cheese. After learning the trade, they purchased a dairy farm, opened a winery and started Canada’s first on-farm milk dispenser.

PHOTO 5: Nancy is involved in training, problem-solving and spends as much time as she can with her horses. Photos provided by Raymond Gourlay.

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.

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