Den Haan family: Two generations of dairy farming pioneers
Sheldon Creek’s whole milk is sold in traditional glass bottles with a plug of cream on top. They also sell chocolate milk, strawberry milk and eggnog seasonally, and yogurt.
All four children of Bonnie and John den Haan have followed their parents into the dairy business. Their sons Scott and Andrew farm in Markdale and Fergus respectively, while their daughters Marianne and Emily have joined their parents to work full time on the farm where they grew up, Sheldon Creek Dairy near Loretto. Still, of the two young women, only one of them knew for certain she wanted to be a farmer.
Two years ago, Sheldon Creek became one of the first three Ontario dairy farms in nearly 60 years to be licensed to sell their own milk direct from their own farm. Typically dairy farms sell their product through Dairy Farmers of Ontario, which blends it all together and distributes the product for sale. The den Haans also sell their Holstein milk to the DFO, but it is a paper transaction only in which they then buy it back, processing and distributing it themselves.
Sheldon Creek’s whole milk is sold in traditional glass bottles with a plug of cream on top. They also sell chocolate milk, strawberry milk and eggnog seasonally, and yogurt. The products were launched with perfect timing to catch the wave of interest in local and artisanal food, so marketing is a key part of the den Haans’ business strategy.
And that’s where Marianne, 26, comes in. She now works full time for the dairy, taking care of marketing, sourcing retailers and managing distribution. But it’s not the job she had in mind when she was pursuing a teaching career, working in Nunavut to accelerate her certification.
Marianne came home for the summer break the year her parents launched the new business – and couldn’t resist the challenge. “I had imagined selling the milk from the farm store and a few local retailers,” Bonnie says. But with the bit in her teeth, Marianne rapidly grew the list of customers, and the family was soon delivering milk in their van to retailers several days a week.
When Marianne returned that fall to her teaching job, Bonnie thought she could manage the growing customer list herself – but quickly changed her mind. By Christmas she was on the phone to Marianne, urging her to come home. Marianne happily complied. Since her return, the distribution network has expanded to stretch from Oakville to Markham, and from Toronto to Haliburton. And Sheldon Creek now employs their own drivers as well as two outside companies to distribute their products. They’ve also added kefir, a fermented milk drink trendy in the health food market, to the product line.
Unlike her sister, Emily knew from the start that she wanted to work on the farm. She was particularly interested in animal nutrition, but on graduating from Ontario Agricultural College, she felt she needed more financial experience, so she accepted a job with a bank, analyzing agriculture clients’ budget and balance sheets. Within four months, there was another phone call between mother and daughter. “There’s an orchid in my office,” Emily told Bonnie. “It’s died – I think I’m next.”
Since coming home, Emily, 23, has taken over the milking operation, bought the farm across the road from her parents’ property, and purchased half her recently deceased grandfather’s herd of shorthorns.
Both Emily and Marianne are representative of the increasing number of young women taking the lead role on the family farm. Over in Fergus, their brother Andrew has a full-time job in the agricultural industry in AI (artificial insemination) sales, and it is his wife, Amanda, who works the farm. This summer the couple welcomed a baby – a happy event that posed some unique challenges around managing the farm. So the new parents have turned to technology for a solution.
Within the next year, like his parents, Andy and Amanda will be pioneering a new way of dairy farming. They will be among the first wave of farmers to introduce robotic milking. The system allows the cows to decide when they want to eat and get milked. When the cows are hungry, they wander over and the system recognizes which cow has approached, tailoring the feed mix to her specific requirements. As she enjoys her meal the robotic arms take care of the milking.
For the young den Haans, farming is still a matter of hard work and long hours. “Farming nowadays is on such a large scale,” notes Marianne. “We’re not farming 20 or 25 cows on a hundred acres anymore. We farm 130 head on 450 acres. For one family to do that is really time consuming.” But they also embrace farming as an economically viable career, and like a growing swell of young farmers, they’re bringing new technology, creative thinking, and tools gained through post-secondary education to make it work.
Sheldon Creek Dairy
4316 5th Concession, Adjala |Northwest of Loretto | 705-435-5454 | www.sheldoncreekdairy.ca
Their crops include oats they sell themselves and a 30-acre field of sunflowers they harvest and sell for birdseed.
We did it for the love of farming. The kids do it because they love it too, and see a future in it.