Meet the Maker:
James Keith and Elizabeth Harker
Back Forty Artisan Cheese
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.
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
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
reality is it is very difficult to run any farm business
a tremendous amount of work, and requires a significant
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
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
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.
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
Bolduc, Fromagerie La Station de Compton