From Barn to Customer

Isle Saint-Jean Farm opens on-site shop near Rustico

Working from home is the day-to-day for every farmer —the barns and fields are their workstations, the livestock their temporary colleagues. But at the end of the day, farmers usually have to venture beyond their farmsteads to reach customers. There are some, however, like Deirdre and Gabriel Mercier of Isle Saint-Jean Farm, who bravely take the leap into running a store on their farm. The couple opened their on-site shop on July 21st at their farm near North Rustico.

It’s been a busy two years leading up to this latest milestone. The Merciers, both of whom are new to farming, launched Isle Saint-Jean Farm in 2015 when they moved from Nova Scotia to Deirdre’s parents’ old farm in North Rustico with their young son, Marcel. They arrived in winter, ready to throw themselves into the adventure of raising dairy sheep. Snow was the first big hurdle. While Gabriel was still working on the mainland, Deirdre had to embrace farm life during the winter Islanders still call Snowmageddon. Proper barn insulation for the animals was the primary concern. “It was hard,” Gabriel said. “But we made it.”

Now Marcel is three years old and a big brother to baby Maurice. Deirdre, who took parental leave from her job at Veterans Affairs Canada, is looking after the farm’s paperwork, while Gabriel focuses on the hands-on farm work. While still getting settled into life with their second child, the Merciers welcomed a flock of lambs into the world in early 2017.

 

Ewes and their lambs have year-round barn accessPhoto Credit: Jessica L. Fritz

The sheep are being raised mainly for milk, which the Merciers convert into value-added dairy products. The production usually takes Gabriel about a day. The sheep have access from the barn to the adjacent milk parlour, and the milk is automatically pumped into large vessels next door. A delicate process of applying heat, adding cultures and either proofing (yogurt) or pasteurizing and brining (cheese) transforms it into a farm-fresh creamy treat.

“From milk to yogurt it takes me about 6 hours,” Gabriel said. “The cheese-making is happening overnight.” The young, mild cheese has a consistency similar to curds and can be eaten raw or grilled, where it becomes a tad gooey without running away. The yogurt has a refreshing taste at a fat content of five per cent.

Earlier this year, the Merciers brought their products to farmers’ markets and local retailers, as well as to restaurants. Isle Saint Jean Farm’s products can be found at several local food shops including the new Kent Street Market, Riverview Country Market, and the new night market at the Farm Centre in Charlottetown. Their sheep’s yogurt is served to guests of Chef Michael Smith’s Inn at Bay Fortune, and at the Blue Mussel Cafe in North Rustico you can enjoy an oyster po’boy with Isle Saint-Jean Farm cheese.

Demand is taking off and life seems busy enough, so one can’t help but wonder why they’ve added a farm shop to their workload. “From a business perspective, it gives us another distribution channel, one which we can operate with better margins. But it’s also about education. We like to help people to make a connection between farming and food,” Gabriel said.

Visitors to the farm shop can meet the animals and tour the milk house and parlour to learn how the milk is transformed into yogurt and cheese.

Isle Saint-Jean Ferme yogurt goes well with berry inspired toppings.//Photo Credit: Jessica L. Fritz

Those looking for a hands-on educational experience might consider joining one of the weekly Looms, Lambs & Lobsters tours being offered this year. This cooperative venture with nearby neighbours Knit Pickers PEI and The Yellow House in North Rustico gives tour-goers a chance to truly experience sheep in a variety of ways.

Back at the shop, the Merciers are offering visitors Canadian cheeses alongside their own cheeses and yogurts, as well as meat from their animals—lamb chops, ground lamb, and lamb sausages created with the help of Island Taylored Meats. And the merchandise extends beyond the culinary realm—sheep’s milk is the key ingredient in a soap manufactured by South Shore Dairy Goats exclusively for Isle St. Jean Farm.

Keeping things local and natural is the Merciers’ goal with Isle Saint-Jean Farm, and the addition of the new on-farm shop in Rustico allows them to do just that.

About Jessica Fritz

Jessica is "from away" in the truest sense of its meaning: her roots are in Germany. She immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 2010 and only recently moved to PEI. As a passionate home cook Jessica likes to explore different types of cuisines including her native one. "Thinking globally, buying locally" is her foodie mantra and growing her own veggies will be her next big adventure. Putting words on paper has always been a way to express herself. Hence, writing for Salty combines her love for food and the written word while at the same time discovering PEI's thriving culinary landscape.

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