PEI’S DAIRY REACHES ACROSS CANADA

Walk by the dairy section of any Prince Edward Island grocery store and you will easily find a wide range of local products on the shelves. And that, quite simply, is due to Atlantic Canada’s largest independent dairy cooperative, Amalgamated Dairy Limited (ADL).

“Every single dairy farmer on PEI is a member of ADL,” Jamie MacPhail, marketing manager of ADL, said, “All are family-owned and they are all members of ADL.”

With five processing plants across PEI, the dairy cooperative’s reach is wide, and ADL employs over 300 people, running their production facilities 24/7. From making butter in their O’Leary plant to the evaporated and condensed milk produced in downtown Charlottetown along with traditional milk processing plants in St Eleanor’s and Charlottetown, ADL is a going concern. But it’s their cheese plant in Summerside that is leading the way.

“We are now the largest speciality cheese processor in Canada. We make about 60 percent of feta and havarti cheese in Canada,” MacPhail said. “We also make asiago, cheddar, mozzarella. I think we are up over 25 different types of cheese that come out of this plant now.”

Islanders are most likely familiar with ADL’s award-winning line of cheddar and mozzarella, as well as the brand Dairy Isle, which is the same cheese but with a brand name chosen to appeal to non-Islanders. But did you know that the company also produces cheeses for Cows, Tre Stelle, Walmart, Loblaws, and other large brands? The partnerships with these brands is a source of pride for ADL.

“A lot of the big players [in the dairy industry] want to run one type of cheese through one plant,” MacPhail explained. ADL’s willingness to make a variety of cheeses has brought them success and a recent $20 million expansion has helped increase their output. He shared an easy trick to identify a cheese that’s been produced in PEI with PEI milk: simply look for the dairy code 3610 on the package.

As a dairy cooperative, ADL’s history goes back to 1953, when seven dairy co-ops decided to join together. At that time MacPhail estimates PEI had well over a thousand dairy farms and over 20 dairy production facilities. Compare that to today with 159 dairy producers and two dairies.

Purity Dairy is PEI’s other dairy. Its scale is certainly not quite that of ADL’s but Purity has been in operation longer. Purity Dairy general manager Tom Cullen recalled, “Purity was started by my parents Eugene and Gladys Cullen and they moved to this location in 1946, to be closer to their customers.” Located on Kent Street in Charlottetown, Cullen chuckled when he recalled that the family farm was just out by the airport, so in essence not really that far away.

Tom Cullen, general manager of Purity Dairy, in the Charlottetown’s dairy’s production area

Still in the same spot over 70 years later, Purity is a “modern operation” and its location in Charlottetown works well for the business. Many of its customers are local retailers and restaurants, and having a central spot in the capital city allows them to easily distribute their products.

Unlike ADL, Purity’s production is concentrated just on beverage milk. Supplied by five specific farms (all of whom belong to the ADL cooperative), Purity trucks make the rounds to the farms, pick up the milk, and deliver to the facility in Charlottetown to be processed. The farms are in close proximity to the plant which is important to Cullen. “We’re a local business and we are able to buy milk close by. We really focus on having superior milk with superior service.”

They employ 20 people at their facility and whole, two percent, skim, and chocolate milk are processed in their plant three days a week. As well, they produce cream, buttermilk, and in season, you will find eggnog on their shelves.

Rodney Spek, owner of EastCrest Holsteins, proudly shows off his farm’s new sign

“I call it, ‘we do the milk you drink, not the milk you eat’, like ice cream or cheese,” Cullen said. The one exception to the beverage or fluid milk produced is their sour cream, which is naturally soured.

Both the processing plant and business offices are at the Kent Street location and a small retail outlet with one fridge showcases Purity’s products there. Having the plant out back allows for fresh product to be delivered directly to the hands of their customers. It’s not uncommon for customers to stop by to get their milk or cream and have the staff call back to the production line for the freshest possible product.

Cullen notes that today’s “coffee culture” and the recent trend towards ketogenic eating has meant more customers buying fresh cream directly from them. As well, he noted that as Charlottetown’s restaurant scene has become more diverse and international in nature, the dairy has seen an uptick in sales for their products.

Both Cullen and MacPhail are proud of the quality of the milk produced on the Island and ADL’s milk quality program provides bonuses to its farmers, based on meeting or exceeding certain standards. “The industry has standards, and then we make those probably twice as aggressive for ADL,” MacPhail explained. “But having the best quality milk gets higher yield, less waste, it just trickles all the way down the line.”

Rodney Spek is a third-generation dairy farmer and his farm EastCrest Holsteins is just east of Hunter River. Spek moved to PEI from Ontario two years ago to farm and finds the ADL bonus program an incentive. “It encourages farmers to meet the goals,…I think it’s a really good idea,” he said. “They [ADL] make you be a little bit better than the rest of Canada.” All milk in Canada has strict standards to meet but reaching or exceeding the milk quality standards set by ADL’s bonus structure can mean better animal health, with higher quality feed and care. Spek noted, “We work with a nutritionist to meet those goals.”

Jamie MacPhail, ADL’s marketing manager, shows off some of their cheese products

Since ADL first amalgamated the cooperative has grown, continually expanding by purchasing smaller companies like the O’Leary Butter Factory in 1955, Olympia Ice Cream Company in 1958 (still making ice cream today), and the Crapaud Creamery Company in the 1980s. In 1991, Perfection Foods Limited went bankrupt and ADL bought out the company. To this day, the Perfection brand of milk can still be found on store shelves, and that plant on Fitzroy Street in Charlottetown now produces 60 percent of Canada’s evaporated and sweetened condensed milk under the Dairy Isle brand. Look carefully at those labels and you’ll also see Perfection named.

It’s impossible to discuss the dairy industry within PEI (and Canada) without approaching the topic of supply management and trade agreements. In the fall of 2018, a new trade deal with the US and Mexico (USMCA) was inked to replace NAFTA. As part of that agreement, new quotas were set that allows for more American dairy to access our Canadian markets. At the time, a groundswell of support for Canadian dairy resulted, along with advertising campaigns to educate the consumer on ways to identify a dairy product made with Canadian milk. The ‘blue cow’ logo is prominent on all ADL’s products.

MacPhail noted that the deal “hadn’t been ratified yet” but he ultimately trusts that the consumer is aware of what it may mean for them. “We are confident that Canadians understand and demand that their dairy products come from Canada and we’ll continue to educate them on the importance of that.” A main difference between Canadian milk and US milk is the fact  since 1999, artificial growth hormones used to increase milk yield have been illegal in Canada.*

“At the end of the day, as a processor, we’ve already taken action to ensure that we are diversifying our markets, finding niche products,” MacPhail explained. “But unequivocally, I think it’s going to impact Canadian dairy industry across the board.” He suggests that it’s unlikely that fluid milk from the US will make its way to PEI stores as it’s “uneconomical” but does expect that retailers will begin to carry more cheese products that are not made with Canadian milk.

The ADL plant in Summerside produces cheese and is one of five plants across PEI

Cullen agreed, “If they [US dairies] did wish to go into beverage milk, they will target large population centres like Montreal and Toronto first, rather than come here.” Like MacPhail, he’s cautiously optimistic about Islanders’ choices. “I think there’s a growing interest in the ‘eat and drink local products’ movement. I see that continuing to gain ground. And it’s a very powerful idea if people follow through with it.”

*Correction: Please note that US milk is also discarded if antibiotics are found to be present (original sentence was “A main difference between Canadian milk and US milk is the fact that our milk is not permitted to be used if it has antibiotics (cows may be treated with antibiotics, but their milk is discarded and doesn’t make it into the processing plants”).

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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