Gay Lea closes Thornloe Cheese; will continue to accept grass-fed milk

It’s the end of an era for a northern Ontario cheese plant, as Gay Lea Foods Co-operative closed the Thornloe Cheese doors on Monday, October 30.

The cheese and milk skimming plant has been in operation in some form since the 1940s, and was taken over by the co-op in 2019.

Mike Langdon, vice president of corporate and co-operative affairs for Gay Lea says the plant had become a food safety and health risk that would require more than $10 million in upgrades to meet modern, current standards.

Langdon says that the cheesemaking team at Gay Lea spent months assessing the plant’s current state and required updates. Ultimately, the decision to close the plant permanently is a financial one. “Continued cheese making at the plant is no longer viable, given the investment required,” he says.

The plant is serviced by 19 dairy farms. Eight of them supplied milk for the cheese curd and cheese side of the business, and 11 supplied specialty grass-fed milk for the skimming plant. That milk is processed in Thornloe and then sent south to Alliston to be packaged for Gay Lea’s grass-fed butter brand.

Langdon says the skimming will continue for now, with just a handful of the team of 35 staff staying on to run the plant. In the coming months, however, the grass-fed milk will be diverted to another plant, he says. He notes that Gay Lea has worked hard to ensure the least amount of impact for the producers and has taken on the added cost of transporting the conventional milk to another facility for further processing.

Of the staff laid off, Langdon says each was offered a severance package above what was required, as the co-op recognizes this is a tough time for everyone.

What remains of the last of the Thornloe Cheese inventory is safe, Langdon says, and will be sold. Once it’s gone, that will mark the end of the brand, he says.

While Langdon says that the plant closure was necessary in the long-term interests of the co-op, they remain very open to selling the facility and attached quota. “It’s a sad day and [this was] an agonizing decision. If a buyer steps forward, we would be willing to have that discussion,” he says.

John Vanthof is the MPP for Timiskaming-Cochrane, a Gay Lea shareholder, and a former dairy farmer, and says he heard from many constituents through phone calls who saw the note on the door announcing the closure. “It was a very big shock,” he says.

Vanthof has since spoken on the phone with the CEO of Gay Lea to express his dismay in how the co-operative chose to announce the closure and express concern over the decision making process.

The Thornloe Plant was in a similar position several years ago when being run by Parmalat, Vanthof says, and northern residents banded together to keep the plant open (it was purchased by Gencor before being sold to Gay Lea in 2019).

“I was on the board of Dairy Farmers of Ontario when Parmalat decided to close the plant, and the local dairy farmers, supported by the community strongly encouraged Parmalat to offer the quota up to local interests if they could pull it off. And it was first time in Canadian history that one of the big dairy processors actually left quota at a small plant,” he says.

When Gay Lea came in, Vanthof says he was very supportive because it is a producer co-op and community-minded. “I’m taking it personally that they just left a note on the door and said too bad, so sad. So yeah, a lot of a lot of people in the North are taking it very personally,” he says.

Vanthof would like to have seen more dialogue before a decision was made and the chance to coordinate an effort to keep the plant running, just like when Parmalat sold the plant. He says that he has plans to meet with farmers this week to discuss options.

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