Ruth Klahsen first made cheese on her honeymoon. We have loved her ever since. An alumnus of the inaugural class of the Stratford Chefs School, she cooked in restaurants for 20 years before thoughts of cheese churned her imagination. Monforte, her artisanal dairy, opened in 2004 and has quietly grown to become a fixture at farmer’s markets and a mark of sophistication on restaurant menus across Toronto.
At her family-operated facility in Stratford, Ont., Ruth Klahsen produces 30 different kinds of handmade cheese from ricotta and cheddar, to the exotic, moldy, French styles using a variety of milks like sheep, goat, water buffalo as well as cow. Her partner farms are free of GMOs, pesticides and herbicides, the dairy cows are all pastured, and all the milk is seasonal—meaning they don’t produce year-round. There is tireless work, passion and honesty in her process, but alas it ain’t easy bein’ cheesy. It is a very difficult business. What makes Klahsen unique is the industriousness with which she has been able to grow her dairy using community involvement. Her business model is one in which she has inverted the whole concept of “going local” to making “local” come to her.
Klahsen’s Community Shared Agriculture plan entails subscriptions repaid in future deliveries of cheese. It’s not an investment or a purchase of a piece of Monforte. “What happens is that you put in $500, for example, and every year for the next five years we give you $150 worth of product; so you get $750 worth of product.” The result of community involvement is that people want her to do well.
The aim of her “Home Farm” is to explore sustainability, artisanal food production, a return to spending time as a family and supporting our farmers. “There are so many young people who want to farm but who have no access to land,” Klahsen says. Monforte has now bought a farm and is giving it to young farmers, so they will have the opportunity to use it, stay and be part of the community. After taking a percentage of what they grow, Klahsen says, “We then use that produce in our restaurant or sell it for them somewhere, or turn it into preserves.”
The Home Farm is situated between Shakespeare and Stratford, off of Highway 7/8. Farming begins next spring. In the meantime, Klahsen is cleaning the GMOs from the land by laying down organic alfalfa, resting the soil over winter, and then plowing next spring. People heading to Stratford will drive past an active farm with gardens, water buffalo and Clydesdale horses. The goal is to actively and directly educate and connect the community through farming. She is also holding cooking classes and farm dinners, as well as establishing a cheese-making school.
“I just think we’re in a really lovely place.” Klahsen beams. “I think the community of people who care about good food both in a hedonistic manner and for ethical reasons is growing exponentially in Ontario.” Her customers understand the value of what she is trying to do, and want to be a part of it. While it is a work in progress, Klahsen believes that transparency in what works and what doesn’t work can inspire others to improve upon this model.
Her good-natured congeniality and honest hard work has enabled camaraderie and an understanding with other chefs that, “we’re all trying to make really good product.” In an era when food politics has become so vital to our lives, and we really have to care where our food comes from, it is important to recognize the genuine sources that are innovating in positive directions. “It will be interesting to see where this goes,” Klahsen muses. “It will be fun to see what happens.”
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