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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Two Cowboys: Discovering Alberta's Own Cheese at Sylvan Star Cheese in Red Deer, Alberta

It's the Cows

There is an old saying that money doesn't grow on trees. It also doesn't sprout when you put it in the ground. In today's age of mass food production, processed and manufactured produce, we sometimes forget where food is supposed to come from.

At places like Sylvan Star Cheese, we are reminded of the principles of quality food production. It is as simple as this. Good seeds are planted in fertile soil to sprout beautiful fields. Fields feed happy dairy cows. Dairy cows produce delicious milk and milk make fantastic cheese. Happy cows eating well is the key to world-champion winning cheese. It all depends on the cows according to John Schalkwyk, who's been making cheese for over fifty years.


When the Schalkwyk family from The Netherlands wanted to start a farm with more space and more of a future, they decided to take a look at Canada. Dairy has been in the family for generations. However, it became too hard as small entrepreneurs in The Netherlands to survive in the restrictive regulatory climate that favors large corporations in the European Union.

The Schalkwyks traveled all over Canada and found that Alberta has space and scope for dairy. Quebec and British Columbia may be known for dairy production and Alberta for its barley and oil. However, what Alberta lacked were a few healthy and happy dairy cows. According to John, you can make cheese wherever you can produce dairy, and there are not many places in the world where you cannot milk a cow.

In 1995 they found a nice place between Sylvan Lake and Red Deer where they settled and started their dairy farm with a herd of Holstein's. It sounds idyllic. However, within Canada's restrictive supply managed dairy environment it is probably one of the hardest business in the country to start and grow. Alberta doesn't have many dairy farmers. Not because it is cold. Because someone in Government decided that Canada has enough dairy and new entrants to the industry are discouraged.

While launching their dairy farm, the Schalkwyks had a hard time finding an excellent piece of cheese in Canada, so they decided to go back to an old family tradition, making good Gouda cheese. John has a long history of Gouda making which he inherited from his mother. He's been making cheese in The Netherlands for 30 years prior to coming to Canada. The next natural progression was to add value to the dairy they produced, and in 1999 they ordered equipment from Holland and started Sylvan Star Cheese.

Now 16 years later Sylvan Star Cheese is renowned for its farm-made Gouda. They have won numerous Canadian awards as #1 Gouda, Extra Aged Gouda and smoked Gouda. Their extra aged gouda, also known as "Grizzly" because of its bite and power, is ranked #4 in the world. Clearly, John followed in his mother's footsteps. In 1952 she also won first prize in The Netherlands with her Gouda for which she received a prize from princess Wilhelmina!


Today the next generation is taking over. Son, Jeroen runs the dairy farm with a herd of about 240 Holstein's, while John and his wife are devoted to making cheese.

Regardless of their success, you will find John at the local Farmers' market where he sells directly to his customers. As a small producer and entrepreneur he continues to survive and grow because, according to him, it's all about happy cows.

According to me, it is because of the hard-working pioneering and persevering spirit of someone that wakes at four in the morning to take care of his first love, his cows, regardless of what some bureaucrat, lawmaker, and tax collector, somewhere in the doldrums government decide about his future.

Makers have no choice. They are compelled to continue to produce. If it becomes too hard in one place, they will move elsewhere. We have no choice but to keep telling their stories. We are proud to support the Schalkwyks, and we enjoy our Sylvan Star cheese.

Hendrik van Wyk
Dairy Cowboy

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