Like all farmers, the Van Bergeijk family works hard from ‘sun up to sun down’ to run their farm in southwestern Ontario.
Everything in the dairy farming operation is interconnected. They grow corn on their 325 hectare farm to feed 400 dairy cows. The cows produce 11,000 litres of milk a year. That milk is used to make the prize-winning Mountainoak Cheese.
Besides the hard work, there’s another essential element that is vital to the sustainability and future business growth of this integrated operation.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how important water is,” said Adam Van Bergeijk at their Mountainoak Cheese facility in Wilmot Township. “The crops need water, the cows need water. And you can’t make good cheese without good water.”
Van Bergeijk didn’t intend to become a commercial cheese maker when he and his family emigrated from Holland in 1996 and bought a dairy farm. But they did carry with them the equipment and skills as artisan cheese makers, and soon were making Gouda cheeses for family consumption.
Word of mouth and a rapid rise in popularity has now put Mountainoak Cheese in retail stores across Ontario.
“We’re growing pretty fast,” Van Bergeijk said. “In 2015, we had growth around 50 percent and sales have increased another 25 or 30 percent this year.”
To meet the rising demand, Van Bergeijk would like to expand his cheese making operation. But once again, the importance of that same essential element rings loudly.
“We need more water. And we won’t be able to grow unless we get more water,” he said.
For the cheese production side of the business, Mountainoak currently relies on a well for all of its fresh water supply. The water is very hard and has to be treated with a softener and a reverse osmosis system to filter and clean the water for use in the milking parlour and in cheese production.
Mountainoak turned to the BLOOM Centre for Sustainability for help.
“People think water is cheap, water is plentiful, and water is always going to be there. In cases like Adam’s and other projects we’ve worked on in Ontario, that’s not necessarily the case,” said Kevin Jones, President of BLOOM.
BLOOM visited Mountainoak to get a sense of their operations and how they might re-think their practices through a more strategic approach that would support their cheese production growth plans.
One of the first things BLOOM did was to help Mountainoak install meters to determine where water is being used and to monitor water use.
“Once we figured out how much water we were using, we identified better practices to reduce our usage by as much as 25 to 30 percent,” said Van Bergeijk.
“We’re moving in the right direction to have more sustainable farming in the end.”
Water conservation is really the same as a new water supply source, said Jones, adding that “if you can be more efficient about how you use water, you can save money and start to plan for the future.”
These water savings are a big step in the right direction. However, there is still a significant water supply gap between the water currently available from the well and what Mountainoak needs to support their planned expansion in cheese production. The existing well cannot support this growth.
BLOOM examined several options to close this water supply gap. These included ‘in-process’ efficiency improvements and water recycling, as well as options for new water supply sources.
One interesting new supply option identified was rainwater harvesting. The dairy farm has several large barns and buildings which could be equipped to capture rain water for use in various operations.
“This makes so much sense,” said Van Bergeijk, recognizing the potential in precipitation to narrow his water supply gap.
“There’s a lot of rain coming down during a big thunderstorm. It’s soft, clean water, and all of it is wasted. But if we install eaves troughs on the barn, we can collect the water and store that for quite some time.”
The preliminary analysis from BLOOM has provided Mountainoak a ‘solution path’ moving forward. The various water supply options fit together like puzzle pieces. Once the pieces and the interconnections are defined, an integrated system can be designed to ensure there is sufficient quality water to support the growth plans of the cheese making operation.
Mountainoak is now more informed and more confident that they can implement options that make good business and environmental sense.
“The Van Bergeijk family run a business and they want to do what’s right. They want to produce a high quality product, grow their business and also respect the environment. They want to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible and also be responsible with water usage,” said Jones.
The next step for Mountainoak is to conduct a more detailed costing and engineering analysis of these options and how to integrate them into their operations.
Mountainoak received funding to conduct this analysis from the Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative that encourages innovation and development in the agriculture sector.
The Dairy Farmers of Ontario was a co-applicant with Mountainoak for the funding request and this next phase of the project.
“The DFO recognizes the importance and lasting benefits of this project,” said George MacNaughton, Director, Operations and Regulatory Compliance. “We understand that improving water management is a major opportunity for Ontario dairy producers to become leaders in water sustainability and environmental protection.”
“Our dairy producers and processors work very hard to be responsible to consumer interests,” said Christina Lewis, President of Ontario Dairy Council. “We applaud the efforts of any dairy processor that engages in proactive measures that promote the sustainable growth of the dairy processing industry.”
Van Bergeijk said he is blessed to be surrounded by so many family members and staff who share his passion for making high quality cheese and respect for the environment.
“If we aren’t more careful with our environment or our water, that’s going to create a lot more problems down the road. That’s not what we want to leave for our children or grandchildren. Our goal is to grow, to get more good safe water for the cows, the processing of milk and cheese production, while still taking care of the environment.”