Pull off the gravel road that leads to Jeff and Jenna Fenwick’s small Frontenac County farm and you are greeted with a quintessential small farm scene: a cozy farmhouse, rustic barn, small orchard and garden. The setting on the shores of the Mississippi River is pastoral and idyllic.
At first glance it may appear that Jeff and Jenna Fenwick are idly living the dream at Back Forty Artisan Cheese, but the truth is there is nothing idle about this couple, and they got where they are through a lot of hard work.
As a cheesemaker, food is in Jeff’s background. Not only did he grow up in the agricultural centre of Ontario, Guelph, his working life also touched on agriculture during his time spent working with an organization that represented a network of organic farms in the area.
“My interest has always been more food centered, I grew up with some acreage on the outskirts of Guelph and after working in urban areas I was super excited to get out of that and get out to the country again,” said Jeff.
Jenna and Jeff have been together since they were teenagers and as they grew together their story together evolved at the same time. Jenna is an artist who studied textiles and design at the Nova Scotia School for Art & Design in Halifax before moving back to Guelph (and Jeff) to set up a textile studio and business: Jenna Rose. (Tip: Jenna’s studio can be found on-site at Back Forty Cheese, so you can purchase really good cheese and really beautiful products at the same time).
In 2011, Jeff and Jenna purchased the existing business, Back Forty Cheese, located in the heart of Lanark Highlands, where they developed a passion for rural life and cheesemaking. As the business grew, their location did not, and after a few years, the decision was made to scale up and the couple began looking for a new home for their sheep making business.
Fortune was on the side of Frontenac County, however, and since Jeff is a friend of the owner from Seed to Sausage (in Sharbot Lake), he was persuaded to make the move to Frontenac in 2015.
“This was a good move for us, we love it here on the Mississippi River…I love fishing and love hunting, so those things all attracted us here,” Jeff said. “We have a dock farther down the river, and we have a really good spot for fishing, we love that. After you work hard all day you go jump in the water, it’s one of our favourite things to do.”
Jenna seconds the benefits of their new life in Frontenac County, where their young family can spend more time together as they both pursue their passions.
“Having a life closer and more connected to nature is one of the main things that appealed to me. Out here I spend more time working outdoors and enjoying the outdoors than ever before, whether it’s working in the garden, on a farm project, swimming in the river, or cross country skiing from our front door.” Jenna said. “This is a beautiful part of Ontario and I feel so lucky to be able to spend so much time outdoors here everyday.”
Six years after settling in Frontenac and Back Forty Cheese is the largest sheep milk purchaser in Eastern Ontario, a big leap from their small sheep farm in Lanark Highlands. Today, Jeff raises some sheep for meat which allows him to focus more time and energy on the thing he loves best – making cheese.
“I like the whole process of cheesemaking. By working with small farms, they’re doing what they love taking care of the animals and having them on pasture, and we’re doing what we love, making really good cheese,” Jeff explained.
Jeff may love a “good tasting cheese” but it’s his customers who have been the ones to take their business to the next level with their universal thumbs up for the artisanal cheese he produces. Back Forty has been approached by larger markets like Sobey’s, Farm Boy, and Walmart, but Jeff says he isn’t interested in scaling up in that way.
“We’re happy to be making a really good product, but profit isn’t our main motivation.”