First, Jeff and Coralee Nonay were dairy farmers. Then dairy and seed potato producers. Then they started selling their own branded beef to restaurants and specialty stores. And now they have a cheesery.
But the Legal-area farmer says the latest venture is no surprise to anyone who knows him because he thrives on doing things out of the box.
“It’s really fulfilling for me and my wife and my family and to a large degree, a lot of the people who work for us, to have consumers connect — that drove it for us,” he said.
“Consumers want to know farmers. In order to do this, you can’t just go talk to them about what you do. You have to have an in or a base, and it just turns out that’s food.”
Although Nonay grew up on a dairy (his grandfather started it in 1950), it was only when some young people from Quebec came to his farm for a three-month work placement that the idea of making cheese came into his head.
“Their dad had taken his farm in their small town and built La Fromagerie de Presbytere,” said Nonay. “He was making phenomenal cheese.”
Although it would be a totally new type of venture, Nonay had been down that road before.
The decision to get into the beef business came after he built a new dairy barn with robotic milkers in 2010, freeing up some of his work schedule. At that same time, the local abattoir expanded operations and became a provincially inspected facility. So Nonay, who had been raising some beef just for his family’s use, approached a specialty meat shop in St. Albert and later, restaurants and other boutique retailers in the Edmonton area.
He also got into crossbreeding, using Simmental semen (later Wagyu) for some Holsteins.
“Other dairy producers have played with crossbreeding,” he said. “It’s becoming very popular with dairy producers across North America. A lot of that has to do with sexed semen and being able to propagate and get heifers out of your best genetics on the farm.”
The Wagyu/Holstein crosses (with some crosses from other breeds as well) are the base of his beef-breeding program.
“The marbling on the Wagyu/Holstein is a great fit for North America,” said Nonay, adding the Wagyu name tends to grab people’s attention and they’re willing to pay more for it.
The venture also provided lessons about marketing.
“No one wanted Lakeside Dairy beef. Everyone wanted ‘Nonay beef.’ It has to be tied to a name and a face. You just learn these things.”
The success in producing quality beef and selling it gave him confidence, he said.
“I love the idea of high-quality food,” he said. “Our beef was already there, in my opinion, I was already pretty confident that it was a unique product, and it was already branded and easy to do.”
When the idea of making cheese came along, Nonay visited the dairy farm in Quebec making cheese. Then two years ago, he connected with cheese maker Ian Treuer and a business plan started to come together.
“We were branding beef and selling it to small boutiques, restaurants and retailers in Alberta,” said Nonay. “It worked well enough for us to take a giant leap into a processing plant and cheese making and employing a lot of people.”
In the fall of 2019, the Nonays broke ground on their processing plant and in September, Lakeside Farmstead Cheese made its first batch. There are now several varieties, including a spreadable cream cheese replacement called Fromage Blanc, brine cheeses, brie and an earthy, smoky cheddar created by soaking curds in a tea made from chaga mushrooms.
“The biggest surprise is how many curds we sell and how many people like curds.”
Lakeside Dairy produces about 5,000 litres of milk a day, and the cheesery makes three batches weekly (a full batch uses about 2,500 litres of milk, which is enough to produce about 250 kilograms of cheese).
The response has not only been very positive on the customer side, but also when it comes to hiring workers.
“We haven’t put out any ads for any employees,” said Nonay. “All of our hires heard about it on social media, and just think it’s cool. And all are people who expressed interest and want to be part of what we’re doing.
“It’s really cool for a small community and a small town to have that.”
Ditto for Nonay himself.
“It’s not always about how much money I can make,” he said. “One day, I’ll be sitting in a rocking chair looking back, and this is one of the coolest things I could do with my opportunity.”