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Gay Lea Foods, potential buyer of Thornloe Cheese in 'productive discussions'

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There could be good news on the horizon for northern Ontario dairy farmers and the community of Temiskaming Shores.

The sign for the now-closed Thornloe Cheese plant on Highway 11, north of Temiskaming Shores. (File photo/CTV News Northern Ontario)

CTV News has learned that talks are progressing between Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative and a potential buyer over the sale of the now-closed Thornloe Cheese plant just north of Temiskaming Shores.

The over 80-year-old cheese staple has been closed since last fall and it was a decision that rocked the nearby farming community.

“It was tough to see for a business that has worked so hard on getting brand recognition across Ontario,” said Temiskaming Shores and Area Chamber of Commerce executive director André Brock.

“They were already at a high level for it to just halt.”

The Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative closed Thornloe Cheese on Highway 11, north of Temiskaming Shores in 2023 citing he plant’s age, condition and food safety risk and the more than $10 million cost to upgrade the facility to 'modern food safety and quality standards.' (File photo/Eric Taschner/CTV News Northern Ontario)

The company confirmed Monday morning that negotiations with a potential buyer are underway over the sale of the cheese shop.

“We’re having productive discussions about the sale of Thornloe Cheese and hope we’ll have more to share before too long,” wrote vice-president of cooperate and co-operative affairs Mike Langdon in a text message to CTV.

“Unfortunately, to respect the confidentiality of the sale process, we can’t say too much more at this stage.”

Brock said he is pleased to see these discussions move forward.

“Whenever you get the two sides talking, that's fantastic news as long as they can keep that going,” he said.

“I know it's a long process and they're going to do what they need to do. But, it's always a good sign.”

The co-operative closed Thornloe Cheese for a short period in mid-September, 2023 to allow cheesemakers from one of Gay Lea’s Manitoba facilities to inspect the plant and outline what would be needed to bring it up to “modern food safety and quality standards.”

They reported back that given the plant’s age, condition and food safety risk, upgrades would require a minimum investment of $10 million. At that price, the recommendation was to close the facility because the plant wasn’t considered strong enough financially.

The co-operative then stated investing that amount of money would not be in the "best interest" of its 1,400 farmer members in Ontario and Manitoba.

The plant permanently closed in October, forcing 35 people out of work. 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.

Thornloe Cheese originally opened in 1940 and opened the current plant in 1969 on Highway 11 just north of Temiskaming Shores.

“We've gone through this. This is our second time and we pulled it back from the brink,” said Timiskaming–Cochrane MPP John Vanthof.

Last November, a rally was held in Temiskaming Shores where farmers, dignitaries and community members called on Gay Lea to sell the cheese shop.

A 'Save Thornloe Cheese' sign pictured at a rally in November 2023 by area farmers, local dignitaries and community members in the Temiskaming Shores area to convince the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative. (File photo/Eric Taschner/CTV News Northern Ontario)

A petition has collected more than 7,000 signatures to save Thornloe Cheese.

“We haven't crossed the finish line,” said Vanthof.

“But this is an example where when a decision was made, people power to make the company realize that it's better for everyone if Thornloe Cheese has a chance of continuing.”

An undated photo of bricks of Thornloe Cheese. (File photo/CTV News Northern Ontario)

Gay Lea has owned the cheese store since 2019. 

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