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More than 200 rally in Temiskaming to support Thornloe Cheese

Citizens committee on the hunt for new buyer of cheese factory
(Sue Neilson photo)

Between the snowstorms and the rain, over 200 people braved the weather in New Liskeard Saturday afternoon to show their support for keeping their beloved Thornloe Cheese store from permanently closing.

'We need your support to save Thornloe Cheese. We need our voices to be heard" organizers told the crowd.

Committee member Anna Regele said organizers were pleased with the turnout.

"Yeah, we're pretty happy. It was short notice. So yeah, we were very happy with over 200 people."

She says the people were all in support and in favour of moving on and trying to find a new buyer, while showing their disappointment with Gay Lea and how it closed the plant with no notice other than a letter taped to the store's door.

"I think that was the big thing. A lot of people were still in shock over that."

The issue is an emotional one for everybody in this small northern community.

"Every single person you talk to would have their little story to share. You know, whether, 'we've got friends and family that come visit.' It's so disappointing how they travel through and they stop here and that's their pit stop. Everybody had their own individualized personalized story that they would share and it was really cute to hear and really nice to hear. And so it kind of affects everybody in this area."

Despite having no solid prospects in the wings waiting to scoop up the business, Regele feels optimistic something can be worked out.

"We're hoping so."

For now, the committee is counting on the federal and provincial governments to help out financially. FedNor has already told BayToday it is willing to help out, though the committee has yet to reach out to the organization. "We haven't specifically, as the committee, reached out to them yet. That is on our to-do list."

See: Feds ready to step in to try and save Thornloe Cheese

The committee hasn't had any solid offers, but is working with a third party who "has had a little bit of interest" but again, the search is in the preliminary stages.

The rally on Saturday was to gauge community support, which the committee believes it saw.

"And now we're going to push forward and try to see who's interested in taking over, and how we can help them as much as we can.

"We're just dairy farmers, it's hard. You know, we're not the processors, we're not business folk when it comes to that type of thing. So we're just trying our best," added Regele.

Meanwhile, In an update on its website Gay Lea Foods says it understands the community’s concerns about the closing of Thornloe Cheese. 

The company closed the plant on Monday, October 30, "in response to an urgent, real, and independently confirmed food safety risk."

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

It is estimated new equipment would cost approximately $10 million and take 12 to 18 months to purchase, test and install.

"Investing a large sum that would generate virtually no return is not in the best interests of our 1,400 farmer members across Ontario and Manitoba," wrote the company. "Importantly, it would also limit our ability to invest in other Gay Lea Foods facilities that support Canada’s dairy industry."

Gay Lea Foods purchased Thornloe Cheese four years ago.

See: Old age killed Thornloe Cheese

"We knew the facility was in poor physical condition and did not perform well financially. We made significant investments in the structure of the Thornloe Cheese building to ensure it was safe. We also made investments to improve sales and marketing in the hope of improving financial results. Unfortunately, the recent food safety issue and physical condition of the facility interrupted these efforts and resulted in the necessary closing of the plant.'

Gay Lea has publicly said it is willing to sell the plant at a discounted price if a buyer emerges.

"Gay Lea Foods is willing to sell the facility, the Thornloe Cheese brand, and the plant supply quota, at a price that advantages a potential buyer. We have received a few calls about the facility. These discussions are at a very preliminary stage."

The company would not reveal a selling price to BayToday.

"Pricing information will be shared with a buyer who is interested in operating the plant as a dairy facility. Our goal is to help a buyer be successful. As promised, Gay Lea Foods has not made any changes to the facility to allow a buyer the opportunity to conduct a full and thorough inspection."

There is no deadline, but the company says it is in no one’s interest for the plant to sit idle for a lengthy period. A deadline will be established based on potential buyer interest.

In response, the Save Thornloe committee says on its Facebook page, "Many plants have to deal with food safety and even product recalls, but they do not close the plant and run with their tail between their legs. When Gay Lea purchased Thornloe cheese, they were aware that the cheese vats were beyond their useful life expectancy, and the purchase price reflected the needed investment."

The committee also charges that Gay Lea did nothing to increase volumes going through the plant nor to maximize sales, which would enable a suitable return on investment.

"Gay Lea had 1 billion in sales last year, so the 10 million investment estimate could easily be cash flowed, and it’s only circulated to create shock and justify their decision to close. We can only conclude that a change in senior management has influenced the board of directors, and the iconic Thornloe cheese plant did not fit their clouded vision."

- BayToday