Chris Selley: Supply management be damned. Is Canada on the brink of a butter revolution?

Jan 04, 2019

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BRUSSELS, Ont. — It may not be one of our most pressing problems, but Canada, home to a fiercely proud and protective dairy industry, is a butter backwater. To peruse the average supermarket’s dairy aisle is to compare nearly identical rectangular white chunks wrapped up in slightly different coloured foil at slightly different prices. The vast majority of offerings, if not all, will contain 80-per-cent butterfat — the legal minimum — made from grain-fed Holstein cows’ milk sourced from pools controlled by the provincial dairy farmers’ associations.
 
Art Hill, a food science professor at the University of Guelph, has some very simple shopping advice: “There’s probably no reason why you shouldn’t just go in and try to find the cheapest brand.” Not only are the products incredibly similar, he says, but many will actually be “coming out of the same churn.” The vast majority of farmers sell their milk into pools, where it’s combined with milk from other farms — and dairies that want to make butter will buy the milk they need from those pools. Unless you like paying for fancy branding, best save your money.
 
Perhaps it’s unreasonable to compare Canada to France and other European countries, where certain butters enjoy government-protected production-standards status — just like Champagne, Jamón Ibérico and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Depending on the region, in midrange continental supermarkets you’ll find butters of various shapes and sizes, with different butterfat contents — some higher, and thus better for baking — from cows fed different things and flavoured with salt sourced from particular regions. But our American friends, too, enjoy a more diverse domestic butter market — and vastly superior access to foreign products.
 
If foreign butter invades Canada it is subject to a whopping 298-per-cent tariff. Even Whole Foods in midtown Toronto offers only a single import: Kiwi Pure, a grass-fed brand from New Zealand, at $11.99 for 250 grams. That’s an eye-watering $22 a pound — and you’ll pay considerably more than that at even higher-end stores.
 
Meanwhile the most expensive butter sold at Le District, a French food market in Lower Manhattan, is US $10. That gets you 250 grams of Isigny Sainte Mère, an appellation contrôlée considered one of the very finest butters in the world. Other French imports go for as little as US$4.95.
 
Canada has its plucky butter upstarts, though, and Sylvain Charlebois, a business professor at Dalhousie University who studies food production, argues Ontario is leading the pack. Temiskaming Valley butter, made by Thornloe Cheese in Northern Ontario, took the grand prize at this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. It has an exclusive supply of milk from grass-fed cows in the area — most within 25 kilometres of the dairy.
 
Rolling Meadow Dairy makes a similar product from grass-fed cows in Southwestern Ontario; its parent company, GreenSpace, owns several organic brands and trades on the TSX Venture Exchange. (It also imports Kiwi Pure.) Stirling Creamery, near Belleville, churns its product to 84-per-cent butterfat. And there are several brands of butter certified organic by DFO. Those will all set you back between $4.99 and $7.99 at higher-end supermarkets and specialty stores.
 
But Owen Sound natives Drew McIver and Mitch Yurkiw, both in their early 30s, along with veteran dairy farmer Bill Van Nes, might be at the leading edge of the butter revolution. Their Emerald Grasslands butter ticks every fancy-dairy box: DFO-certified both grass-fed and organic, cows free to roam, milk churned to 84-per-cent butterfat, and in many cases sourced entirely from Van Nes’s herd of 400-odd Jersey cows, who lead an uncommonly outdoorsy life on a farm near Brussels, Ont., about 30 kilometres from the eastern shore of Lake Huron.
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