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Farmers, community rally to save Thornloe Cheese

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Demonstrators in Temiskaming Shores are calling on cooperative Gay Lea Foods to sell Thornloe Cheese and all its assets in order to save the 83-year-old business.

Gay Lea announced Oct. 30 that it had no choice but to close the plant because of the cost to upgrade equipment.

Saturday on Armstrong Street North, tractors pulled into a large rally zone as farmers united behind saving the store.

Grass-fed dairy farmer Robin Flewwelling recalls rallying in 2007, the first time Thornloe Cheese was threatened with closure.

Now 16 years later, he has to do it all over again.

"It's deja vu that we're doing this all over again. We were hoping this wouldn't happen again," he said.

Flewwelling is the acting chair of the 'Save Thornloe Cheese' committee.

Owner Gay Lea Foods closed the facility after an inspection determined the plant isn't up to "modern food safety and quality standards." The closure forces 35 people out of work.

"The affected product was first identified in internal quality testing and did not leave the facility, so there was no risk to public health," Gay Lea said in an updated statement.

Saturday on Armstrong Street North, tractors pulled into a large rally zone as farmers united behind saving Thornloe Cheese. (Eric Taschner/CTV News)

Grass-fed dairy farmer Robin Flewwelling recalls rallying in 2007, the first time Thornloe Cheese was threatened with closure. Now 16 years later, he has to do it all over again. (Eric Taschner/CTV News)

"Following an assessment, experts determined the plant must be closed because much of the cheese-making equipment required immediate replacement."

Gay Lea said it would need at least $10 million in upgrades due to its condition and age. It adds it would take between 12-18 months to purchase, test and install equipment.

The co-operative has said investing that amount of money would "generate virtually no return" and is not in the "best interests" of its 1,400 farmer members in Ontario and Manitoba.

The company's full statement on its decision to close Thornloe Cheese can be found here

FEARS OF SOUTHERN ONTARIO MOVE

"We're worried they're going to move the grass-fed program to southern Ontario and leave us with regular milk," said Flewwelling.

A petition hoping to save the shop has more than 7,000 signatures. Demonstrators, including Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof, are calling on Gay Lea to sell all of its assets, including the recipes, plant and equipment to a potential buyer at a fair price.

“They say they want to allow the quota and plant to be transferred, but consider how they left the area and how just left a sign on the door and said goodbye," Flewwelling said.

"Actions speak louder than words."

As Temiskaming's only milk processor, farmers rely heavily on Thornloe Cheese.

"It's the closest facility that takes our milk. So if it closes, our milk has to travel an extra hour to be processed," said Joshua Jackson, farmer at Jackson Valley Farms.

The plant originally opened in 1940. A new plant opened in 1969 on Highway 11 just off Temiskaming Shores.

In 2007 when dairy supplier Parmalat announced it was closing the plant, area dairy farmers stepped up to encourage the company to sell it to local interests.

Farmers hope that happens again.

"I'm only somewhat optimistic," said Jackson.

The plant was transformed from a single-product plant to sell cheeses and other dairy products before Gay Lea assumed control in 2019.

"It's very upsetting actually. It's a staple here," said Jackson.

"Personally, we've been at Thornloe Cheese for a long time going to get cheese and different things." 

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