Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.
Sustainable: a buzzword popular with urban dwellers who throw the term around when describing their food buys to reinforce their commitment to eco-/socio-conscious consumption to themselves and others. It’s also a totally ambiguous term, as are most environmental food-related phrases (not “certified organic,” though—Canada’s got your back on that one). What should the term “sustainable food” mean and what does it take to create it? Prince Edward County’s Fifth Town dairy, maker of artisanal cheeses throughout the city, has carved out a personal sustainable manifesto for their cheese-making business. It’s their hope other businesses will follow suit.
Petra Cooper, owner and CEO of Fifth Town, has the double distinction of being able to call her business Canada’s only LEED-certified dairy and the first Platinum LEED manufacturing facility in Canada across all industries. The wonders of Fifth Town’s green building initiatives (the bio-wetland system; the wind turbine; the man-made, cement cheese-cooling caves) have been written about at length.
But Cooper, though proud of the dairy’s third-party LEED certification, believes that making a sustainable food product requires more than a little carbon offsetting. In fact, she says, she’s got a five-point system.
“Energy renewal and water conservation are big parts of creating a sustainable product,” says Cooper, who opened the doors to Fifth Town in 2008. “But so are using premium ingredients and recyclable packaging and caring about the community impact. Are the employees happy? Are the farmers getting a fair price for their goods?”
Cooper didn’t really plan to build a sustainable dairy. She just didn’t want to work in publishing anymore. After eight years at McGraw-Hill Publishing in Toronto, Petra and her husband Shawn decided to move to Prince Edward County, build a new house, and try their hand at cheese-making.
“When we were building the house, the contractor managed to talk us out of some green initiatives that we actually really wanted,” she recalls. “So, when it came time to build the dairy, I wanted to push the limits.”
So she put her cheese where her mouth was, and tried to extend the concept of sustainability throughout her business. Inside Canada’s greenest dairy facility are fourteen employees, most of whom came to Cooper unsolicited and all of whom have been with Fifth Town since it opened its doors.
For packaging purposes, Fifth Town doesn’t seal its product in plastic or Krayovac wrapping, not only because the substance takes generations to decompose, but also because they believe it’s bad for maintaining the life of the cheese. And since the product is only as good as what’s under the label, Cooper looks to half a dozen Prince Edward County farmers to provide her with local milk for her goat and sheep cheeses.
Though eco-friendly, those steps taken to produce Fifth Town have not gone unnoticed by the sharp taste buds in the industry. Apart from winning dozens of awards, in 2009, Fifth Town took home a prize in the Premium Goat Milk Cheddar category from the American Cheese Society, the Big Gouda of the cheese world. But such success and reputation comes with a sizable price tag. The facility itself cost over two million dollars to construct, a quarter of which was spent on green initiatives, and the average price of their Lighthall Tomme goat cheese is eight dollars for three hundred grams at The Big Carrot. Sustainable cheesin’ ain’t easy (or cheap).
“It does mean that the cost of our cheese is a bit higher, but I don’t think a smart consumer would mind if they understood the mission [of Fifth Town],” says Cooper, explaining that the cost of the cheese reflects the cost of running the on-site whey waste management system or buying the highest quality milk. If a consumer wants to buy a local, sustainable food product, then they need to pay for the work that goes into creating it. If they don’t, some under-paid employee, or ecosystem, does.
But it looks as if consumers are catching on. Afrim Pristine, part of Toronto’s Cheese Boutique dynasty, claims their Fifth Town sales have taken off over the last year, and that it’s a very popular cheese buy among customers. “That product just gets better and better,” he says.
In the Canadian government’s most recent tally, an average household in 2002 used just 11.1% of their income for food, down from 15.1% in 1982. But if consumer interest in buying organic and local food has grown in the last eight years, Cooper believes that we need to put that money where we want that sustainable food to be.
“I call it talking outta both sides of your mouth,” says Cooper. “You can’t be a local food advocate and buy that local food from Walmart. Sustainable food is about the big picture and education.”