Ruth Klahsen by Jo Dickins November 2009

Ruth Klahsen is the founder of Monforte Dairy. She is a pioneer, a veteran chef, an entrepreneur, a mother, and a cheese maven. Ask anyone in the Southern Ontario food community that knows Ruth and they will tell you that she is a force of nature, a woman on a mission, an inspiration. After speaking to Ruth for a brief moment in her busy day, I believe it.

Ruth attended Stratford Chef School in 1983. She worked at restaurants in Stratford such as Rundles and The Old Prune. After 20 years of professional cooking, she wanted to make a change in her life. She was confused about why a country like Canada with such great agricultural land wasn’t making quality artisanal cheeses. She saw huge market potential and began Monforte having only the experience of making her own cheese as a hobby at home. The dairy began by making two sheep’s milk cheeses: Toscano and Paradiso.

In February 2009 Ruth embarked on what she calls Monforte’s Renaissance. The renaissance referred to a project that would transform the dairy. Prior to the renaissance, Ruth had been renting space to in a facility in Millbank, Ontario since 2004. Although sales of her cheese were doubling every year, the landlord jacked up rent to a point that was no longer feasible to stay. Ruth’s plan was to build Monforte a new home: a sustainable, micro-production dairy that would allow the business to grow and free it of escalating rent costs. In order to finance the new project, Ruth looked to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model.

Many people familiar with CSA operations associate it with agricultural production; farmers are able to share the risks and benefits of growing friuts and vegetables or rasing animals with a community of subscribers who guarantee a level of sales. Typically, CSA members pay a lump sum in advance for a designated share of the season’s harvest. This defrays farmers’ upfront costs of production and distribution and ensures them a market for their product.

Monforte has pioneered the idea of using CSA principles and applying them to food processing, in this case cheese making. Ruth’s model for CSA allows customers to support Monforte by pre-buying cheese. There are three subscription plans of incremental costs. In return, investors have a choice of receiving vouchers for cheese and comestibles that can be used at local farmer’s markets and participating retailers, or a gift basket delivered twice a year for five years.

Monforte managed to raise approximately $400,000 through CSA subscriptions in 2010. By expanding the dairy, Monforte has also supported dozens of local farmers by buying their milk. Ruth has set up Monforte as an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), a model where the farmers become part owners of the company. Monforte is now making 25 different cheeses, it is supplying approximately 30 restaurants with cheese, and has recently opened a storefront in Liberty Village.

Ruth’s initiative is a groundbreaking and creative way to change the politics of food production in Canada. Participating in CSA and supporting Monforte using this model gives her customers the opportunity to become an agent in how local quality food is produced, distributed and sold in Ontario, and it amplifies issues surrounding sustainability and local tradition. The business model that Ruth has established stresses the importance of community, farming, and artisanal craft in this province. The success and sustainability of Monforte means a viable life for their farmer’s and of course delicious cheese for their consumers.

This post is part of an ongoing GFR series on Toronto restaurant suppliers. Click here to see all the articles.

Photo: Jo Dickins,</>

Michelle RabinMichelle Rabin is a Toronto based recipe tester, writer and server. She loves shopping at farmer’s markets, supporting local and sustainable products and of course eating delicious food. Follow her at@michellerabin and check out her blog The Art of Eating Alone