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Doors suddenly close at Temiskaming's Thornloe Cheese

Gay Lea Foods mum on the details as local MPP calls it a "shock to the community"

Award-winning Thornloe Cheese, an iconic Highway 11 agri-food institution, has permanently closed.

Gay Lea Foods, its Mississauga parent company, announced the closure on Oct. 30. Patrons to its storefront were advised of the closure with a sign on the door.

Calls and messages into Gay Lea Foods and its regional point of contact, marketing manager Pam Hamel, were not immediately returned to Northern Ontario Business this afternoon.

Gay Lea acquired the award-winning 30-employee Temiskaming cheesemaker from Gencor in December 2019.

The popular cheese factory and storefront is located 17 kilometres north of New Liskeard, near the village of Thornloe. 

In a statement on social media, Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof, the NDP’s Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs critic, said the announcement comes as a “shock to the community.”

“Years ago, when Parmalat announced they were closing the plant, local dairy farmers supported by the greater community strongly encouraged the company to sell the plant and production quota to local interests. In the end, Gencor, a farmer cooperative, took the plant over. It was transformed from a single product plant to a producer of award-winning, much-loved cheeses and other dairy products.

“Gay Lea took over the plant in 2019. It is also a farmer cooperative which focuses on dairy processing. I was supportive of the sale at the time because of Gay Lea's past commitment to local communities.

“As someone who was involved in the Parmalat transfer phase of the plant, as a former dairy farmer, and a Gay Lea shareholder, I am extremely disappointed. I have spoken to the CEO of the company and will speak to other stakeholders in the upcoming days to see what can be done.”

“We fought too long and too hard to save Thornloe Cheese to just wave and say goodbye.”

A consistent winner at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, the northeastern Ontario producer of cheese and cheese curds celebrated its 80th anniversary in July 2020.

The business was founded by René Laframboise in the village of Thornloe in 1940. The factory went through a succession of owners, relocation and expansion at its current Highway 11 digs under the Jubinville family, Balderson Cheese, Ault Foods, and Parmalat.

Over the years, the business has constantly faced challenges to keep its doors open.

In 2007, Montreal-based parent company Parmalat bought Thornloe, intending to shutter the facility, citing high costs and low profit. Nineteen jobs were at stake. At the time, the dairy mega-giant said the area’s milk quota was being “consolidated” into other Parmalat facilities.

Gencor, a southwestern Ontario cattle genetics company, purchased the operation, and later merged with Eastern Breeders of Kemptville to form EastGen.

But it wasn’t a long-term solution, paving the way for Gay Lea’s acquisition of the business in December 2019.

In a February 2020 interview with Northern Ontario Business, Gay Lea's then CEO, Michael Barrett, acknowledged his company had been considering the acquisition for “quite some time.” Negotiations began in early 2019, he said.

Barrett said there would be few changes. Their immediate plans were to ease into the environment as the Mississauga-based, farmer-owned cooperative made its first formal entry into Northern Ontario.

Barrett said Gay Lea’s intentions weren't to scoop up the business and relocate it south but to enhance what has been painstakingly built up over the years, customer by customer. The Gay Lea business philosophy, he said, is focused on making investments in small communities that support establishing a strong rural economic base.