Meet the Maker:

James Keith and Elizabeth Harker

Back Forty Artisan Cheese

JR: The two of you make what I believe are Ontario’s most creative, consistent and sophisticated specialty cheeses, and yet you only became farmsteaders and cheese makers relatively recently. How did you make such a successful transition? Where and from whom did you learn your cheese making skills?

JK: Thank you for your kind words and support!  Our farmstead dream was for self-sufficiency.  We really learned to make cheeses consistently by trial and error.  Making cheese for ourselves (in a large pot) allowed us to make several hundred batches where we could experiment and learn. We researched the theory and then practiced.  For us, starting and staying small has been the key.    

JR: I was surprised to learn recently that Ontario ranks as a top North American centre for sheep dairying, and that our local Ewentiy Cooperative is the second largest sheep dairying coop on the continent. Do you believe we’ll see more sheep milk cheese making in Ontario over the next few years? What are some of the challenges and opportunities of raising sheep and making ewe milk cheeses? 

JK:  I hope we see more successful sheep milk producers in Ontario, although I don’t see that happening quickly.  It’s difficult to produce sheep milk profitably as a ewe’s production is relatively small and seasonal.  It’s a very demanding job to run a good sheep dairy, or a sheep farm for that matter.  Ewes’ milk is a beautiful milk for cheesemaking.  It is rich and mild and as such is very versatile.        

JR: What advice (or cautionary tale) would you deliver to aspiring Ontario cheese makers?

JK: The reality is it is very difficult to run any farm business profitably.  It’s a tremendous amount of work, and requires a significant investment.  And there’s so much to learn if you haven’t grown up with it.  It is very difficult for a couple or small family to produce feed for their sheep, run the milking operation, and make and market cheese.        

JR: The range of your cheeses is very broad, including bloomy and washed rinds, blues, pressed aged varieties, feta and even a scorched rind variety. How were you inspired to create your diverse cheeses? What are some of the individual cheeses, cheese styles or cheese regions that have influenced you? 

JK: Part of the reward ofcheesemaking is to learn to emulate and master traditional cheese styles – with your own twist.  To that end, we definitely look to French cheeses for our inspiration.  Also, we have a lot of regular farmers’ market customers so we try to provide a variety of interesting cheeses. We still experiment and are always learning.        

JR: Your cheese making and aging facilities are very small. Withoutgiving away all your “trade secrets”, I’d like to know how you manage to produce and mature cheeses such a range of cheeses, given that they all require distinctive production techniques and aging environments.

JK: You have to try to create micro-environments within your aging room. And there are a variety of ways to do this.  You soon learn how the different cheeses in the aging room will affect each others’ ripening, rind development etc., and try to make adjustments.  It’smore difficult than making just one cheese but it can be done. 

JR: Which of your cheeses do you enjoy making the most? Which is(or are) the most challenging for you?

JK: They all have their idiosyncrasies and challenges.  The milk is always changing in composition through the season so that’s a constant challenge.  And making cheeses on this scale is very labour intensive.  It’s just Liz and I and everything is done manually.  I really enjoy making our Highland Blue.  Blue cheeses are miraculous things. 

JR: Are you currently experimenting with any new cheese ideas?

JK: We got a smoker a while back and have been doing some smoked cheeses that are very nice.  Trying different woods for the smoke and whatnot…   



Previous Meet The Maker articles:

Stephanie Diamant, Milky Way Farm

Simon-Pierre Bolduc, Fromagerie La Station de Compton