Back Forty Artisan Cheese



Business Name: Back Forty Artisan Cheese

Founder: Jeff and Jenna Fenwick

Founded In: 2000


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In ten words or less, what’s so special about your products?

Cheeses that take their uniqueness from their environment.

Intriguing. Tell us more.

At Back 40, we make artisan cheese from sheep milk, mostly raw although some are pasteurized. 

What makes our product unique is that it’s alive and connected to the land around us. There are many aspects influencing the flavour of our cheese. Much like a fine wine, our cheese has terroir and will be affected by the seasons, the animal diet, farming practices and the environmental conditions of the kitchen and ageing rooms. 

We have established exclusive partnerships with five local family-run sheep farms because high-quality milk is the foundation of good cheese. Our farm partners take great pride in their operations as they raise their sheep on fresh pastures during the warmer seasons and feed them dry hay in the winter, resulting in the highest quality milk. 

The result is a very unique, one-of-a-kind product. To give an example, we are the only cheese producer in Canada making a raw blue, bloomy rind or washed rind cheese. The reason we can do this is because of our superior milk quality and small size. We know exactly where all of our ingredients come from. 

When you’re making cheese as we do, you’re dealing with a living, breathing product from start to finish. That’s something that requires a great deal of time and attention.

Your cheese tastes amazing. Where do you get your flavour inspirations from?

We’re really inspired by the old world, the European way. Our cheeses become our own as a result of the region’s terroir, farming practices and the way we age them of course, so they do end up being uniquely connected to this part of the world.

Many people dream about starting a food or drinks business. How did you launch yours? What’s the story behind Back 40 cheese?

Canada’s quite young in the food scene when it comes to cheese. There used to be a time when we had small cheese factories in all of these little hamlets and my wife’s grandpa actually owned a little cheese factory in Salby. So we have a little bit of cheese in the blood. 

We were fortunate enough that we were able to purchase Back 40 Artisan Cheese from the original owner who had started it in 2000. It was a very small-scale operation and he was looking to retire. 

I was lucky that I could work with him for several months and learn the original recipes. That’s how we got started and then expanded from there.

In addition to making cheese, you’re also running Back 40 is a working farm. What else do you do?

Our primary focus is cheese but we also keep a large market garden along with raising some livestock. 

We focus on raising unique heritage breeds and raise pigs, sheep, chickens and turkeys for meat purposes. We have a fairly well-established orchard and recently planted another 132 heritage cider varieties with a goal of producing our own craft cider for people to enjoy alongside our cheeses. 

My wife Jenna has a well-established textile business, Jenna Rose, and creates one-of-a-kind pieces that are sold around the world.

You have a beautiful facility here, complete with your own commercial kitchen and ageing rooms. Is it possible to start a cheese business with fewer resources?

Absolutely. There are a few good books out there that will teach you artisanal cheese production. I highly recommend “The Small-Scale Dairy” by Gianaclis Caldwell. Buy used equipment and you can set up a small cheese business very inexpensively. 

There are important health regulations around making cheese that you will have to learn and understand. You do have to run your operation out of a commercial kitchen if you wish to sell your cheese. But it’s absolutely possible to start small, that’s how we did it. Having low overhead allows you to learn the craft without being worried about the financials all the time.

When you first took over the business, how did you pay for everything? How much did it cost to get this food business up and running?

We didn’t spend much at the beginning, using existing and used equipment where we could until demand outweighed what we were able to produce that way. 

Only then did we invest more. We built the new kitchen here in 2015 and started putting in fairly expensive equipment for more sophisticated ageing rooms that would give us a more consistent year-round product that we could sell to restaurants and retail stores.

Did you receive any help from Frontenac Business Services?

Absolutely. When we moved to this location, Frontenac Business Services supported us when we needed to upgrade our equipment. They are incredibly helpful people.

Where are you now? Where is your business going?

We will always be an artisanal operation. I don’t ever see us becoming an industrial cheese plant, that goes against who and what we are. 

We have just finished building an outdoor event space featuring a large grill, traditional pizza oven and outdoor dining area overlooking the river. We also hired an award-winning executive chef and will be launching a series of farm-to-table dining events along with offering consistent Saturday food service. 

The vast majority of the menu will come from our own farm and of course all of the cheeses for the pizzas will be made fresh on site. We are in the process of being licensed as a federal winemaker which will allow us to sell our small batch cider and we will also have local wine and craft beer available. We’ll be staying focused on cheese, but we’ll work on growing the tourist experience as well.

What’s so special about doing business in Frontenac?

We love that Frontenac is rural enough to allow for the outdoor lifestyle that we love. It’s not overcrowded, but it is only one hour away from Ottawa and Kingston and about three hours from Toronto and Montreal. Even New York isn’t far away, should we ever want to sell to the US. We’re living a rural lifestyle, but we’re far from isolated.

Finally, do you have a checklist that you could share, your top three tips to keep in mind when starting a food business? Things you wished you would have known yourself.

If you want to launch a cheese business, make sure you understand the regulations, which is essential. If you get stuck, call your local representative at OMAFRA or CFIA. Don’t be intimidated, there’s much help out there. 

Second, start small. Try and sell on farmer’s markets and allow yourself the time to really learn the craft. It takes time to become familiar with the processes. 

Third, take notes. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned personally. Notes are essential for success.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.