Canadian cheese producers unhappy with new EU trade deal

Canadian cheese - mostly cheddar - was once a major export. 95% went overseas to Great Britain. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Canadian cheese – mostly cheddar – was once a major export. 95% went overseas to Great Britain. (photo: Lucy Martin)

I kept running into cheese news this past week. It began with provincial and local crowing about a small, local artisan cheese that took on the world and won.

As reported in the Globe and Mail:

Move over Stilton, Ontario now makes the king of cheese. Well, the “Supreme Global Champion” of cheese to be exact. Hailing from Lancaster, Ont., and made at Glengarry Cheesemaking, aged Lankaaster (just under two years old at the competition) took top prize at the annual Global Cheese Awards this fall. It was crowned the winner among 167 categories, which included such cheese legends as Shropshire Blue and Parmigiano Reggiano. The Global Cheese Awards are based in Somerset, England (the birthplace of cheddar), and in 2011 evolved from the annual Frome Cheese Show, which has a 150-year history showcasing artisan cheese makers.

A triumph for a small, North American producer and a sign of good quality in Canada's modest – but growing – artisan cheese industry. (You can tour the small factory yourself in this CTV "Regional Contact" feature from 2011.)

That happy note was dimmed by word that many Canadian cheese producers are quite worried about a proposed free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union.

After several years of negotiation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Brussels Thursday, only a day after the also-important Throne Speech that re-opened Parliament. The trade agreement announced early Friday morning was the big headline across Canada by week's end. As summarized by CBC:

Under the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) and NAFTA, Canada will have preferential access to more than half of the world’s economy.

The sweeping agreement with the 28-member European Union covers everything from cars to food to intellectual property

"This is a big deal. Indeed, this is the biggest deal our country has ever made," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Brussels on Friday after signing the agreement alongside European Commission president Jose Manual Barroso. "This is a historic win for Canada."

Like many free trade pacts, this one is complex and far bigger than any one sector. It won't please everyone. While the deal has initial approval from the provinces, continued support for full implementation will likely require compensation programs from federal coffers to placate sectors most affected by the proposed changes.

CBC reports cheese makers in Quebec, for starters, are "furious" about the terms:

The not-yet-official deal would allow twice as much tariff-free European cheese across the Canadian border, in exchange for exporting tariff-free pork and Alberta beef.

That means about 30,000 metric tons of cheese produced in Europe would come to Canada.

Currently, about 13,000 metric tons of European cheese make it across the Canadian border a year.

All the details of that free trade agreement are not yet available, as it's still an agreement in principal with more text to be drafted. An overview is all the public and the press can chew on for now, and full implementation could take up to two years. (Those who want to know more can continue to check Canadian news sources as that story develops further.)

Lastly, a detour of sorts, still on the cheese theme. I belong to the Rideau Township Historical Society, a modest but fun local history group. This past Wednesday the society drew a crowd of over 70 to the North Gower community hall for a book launch of the second edition of "Cheese Factories of Rideau Township" by Iona Joy.

The names of the different farms and families involved in those factories won't matter much to those outside this area. But it was quite interesting to hear about the rather large role cheese production once held in places like Ontario and New York from the late 1860s to the early 1900s.

Farmers have always made cheese and butter on a small scale for personal use and local sale. But as new transportation options in rail and by sea opened potential markets, a new thing emerged in the mid-1800s: cheese factories.

Book launch audience takes in a model of a typical small cheese factory, circa the early 1900s. This model was made by Joe Farley. (photo: Lucy Martin)

Book launch audience takes in a model of a typical small cheese factory once found in so many communities. This model was made by Joe Farley. (photo: Lucy Martin)

They were attractive because small factories, scattered about, could transform the milk of many farmers into an added-value product, with a modest outlay of capital. Oh heck, I'll just quote from the blurb on the RTHS website:

Although it is not widely known these days, cheese occupied a special place in the economic development of our country. In fact for the last decade of the nineteenth century it took turns with fish as Canada’s leading staple export after timber and sawmill products.

The export of cheese was so important to Canada that the federal and provincial governments and universities such as Queen’s in Kingston, all contributed to the development and management of the industry. The goal was to produce and deliver the highest quality product to an international market in order to keep and increase the number of those clients.

How this was accomplished and by whom is the subject of the book. It required a commitment at all levels to maintain standards, keep schedules, and above all, work hard and long in the factories, on the farms, and in the transportation of the cheese to market. The book discusses all.

This was a regional boom. During a similar time frame, New York state was the number one cheese producing region for the United States. Indeed, some say the small cheese factory was first invented in Rome, New York.

Here's a link with greater details about cheese production in Herkimer County. This seems to be a history that doesn't get  that much respect either, as borne out by this 2006 New York Times article about cheese museums as glib shorthand for pork barrel sending.

Of course, continued improvements in centralization, transportation and storage lead to even bigger factories, which squeezed out nearly all the little ones. By the time my family moved to Rideau Township in 2000 there was just one family cheese factory still selling what they made on site, and it closed a few years later.

Getting back to today, it's hard to guess if small scale and craft/artisan cheese can survive and thrive. It's clear that more and more excellent cheese is being made by dedicated producers on both sides of the border hereabouts. And what they represent is very attractive: skillful, human-scale, local production of something delicious.

But many products – especially high-end foodstuffs – are vulnerable to style trends, economic downturns and yes, basic trade policy. As we can see by gazing across the last few centuries.

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