Local sheep cheese from the wilds of North Frontenac 


Hi, we are Jeff and Jenna Fenwick of Back Forty Artisan Cheese. We moved to the Lanark Highlands in 2012 from the city of Hamilton.  At that time, we were about 30 years of age and looking for a change of pace from city life and, having a family cottage in the region, we had always loved the area.  We purchased a small 12-acre homestead which was set up for rotational sheep grazing and had a small commercial kitchen off the back of the home where the original owner produced a small amount of cheese for the Farmers’ market and a few local customers.  


When Back Forty was first started in 2000 by the original owner, milking sheep was the best choice for several reasons.  Start-up costs were less expensive than cow dairy quotas, wool had some value and the meat, also quite valuable, could be sold at the Farmers’ market.  Sheep were a great option for the small farmstead as they didn’t require as much land and could graze the rugged terrain.   

We pursued the business as more of a full-time career and within a couple years outgrew the existing space.  In 2015 we decided to relocate to the neighboring township of North Frontenac and took on the large task of converting a barn into a new state of the art cheese processing facility.  We now manage a 160-acre mixed farm bordering the Mississippi river, a sheep milk artisan cheese production facility, a seasonal cheese shop and a summertime riverside bistro.   

Our primary focus is sheep milk cheese production, but we also have a large market garden, raise Highland cattle, whey-fed Berkshire hogs, heritage meat birds, lamb and laying hens. The majority of the meat and produce is used onsite at our riverside bistro, where we specialize in wood fired pizza.   

The original sheep flock was Icelandic – a herd of about 50. For the past 11 years we have been working with some local farmers in Eastern Ontario who specialize in sheep dairy farming, with flocks ranging from 150 – 300 head. These flocks are primarily a mix of East Friesian and Romanov breeds. They supply our cheese business with milk year-round.  

Spring to early fall, the sheep are rotated on pasture.  In the winter they are fed some grains and hay which is primarily grown onsite. At Back Forty farm, we raise some of the ram lambs every year. We follow organic practices, and the sheep are primarily grass fed and kept on large pastures.  The only exception is a little organic grain to lure them into the barn for safety each evening.  We don’t spray any of our fields and we stick to a grassfed diet with a little supplemental certified organic feed.   

Our farm is located in North Frontenac and the landscape is quite remote and rugged.  We have several coyotes and the occasional red wolf.  We have a large Doberman/Great Pyrenees dog who helps to keep predators at bay.  We lock the sheep up every evening and occasionally have to shoot the odd coyote if it becomes too brazen.  So far we have been quite lucky and have yet to lose any sheep to predators.  

 In the past, we would have to freeze milk to have some raw material to make cheese year-round.  Lambing is now staggered, so we have a year-round supply of fresh milk which permits full-time cheese production. Milk production does vary throughout the year, depending on the quality of feed, ambient temperature, lactation cycle, etc.  On average, each ewe will produce a 1-3 litres of milk per day.   

Sheep provide very rich milk which is highly nutritious and makes some of the best cheeses worldwide (Roquefort, Feta, Pecorino Romano, etc.)  Although the ewes produce significantly less milk than a cow, the milk is very rich and yields about 16 to 20 percent cheese, while goat’s and cow’s milk only yield about 8 to 10 percent.   

Cheese making is really a full-time job on its own, requiring a large time commitment, especially if your focus is on quality aged cheeses.  For this reason, we chose the path of working with partner dairy sheep farms for our milk, which allows a concentrated focus on milk production on the one hand, and cheese production on the other. Making raw milk cheese is a difficult process. You need the highest quality milk and a great understanding of cheese-making.   

Most of the cheeses we make take anywhere from 15 to 20 hours to make, initially, and are then cared for in the ageing rooms for 2-24 months. Cheese is a living, breathing organism and ageing it naturally (not under vacuum) requires constant attention and know how.  

We produce the full spectrum of cheese categorizes Including: Feta, Bloomy Rind, Washed Rind, Semi-Firm, Hard aged cheese and a Blue cheese. We also produce a smaller amount of pasteurized soft cheese along with a delicious thick yogurt which is only available at the farm shop.   

We market our cheeses through fine cheese shops, restaurants, and some smaller independently owned grocery stores across Ontario.  It is also available on site at the farm’s cheese shop and bistro, from June – October. There customers can view the make room, visit the animals and enjoy a lunch and beverage beside the Mississippi River. 

Back Forty has been approached by larger markets like Sobey’s, Farm Boy, and Walmart, but we aren’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. 

For those who might be interested in keeping sheep for milk and cheese, it is best to do your homework first. There are lot of regulations around milk and cheese production in Canada.  If you are thinking of starting production, you will want to familiarize yourself with these regulations and ensure that your milk/cheese parlor and kitchen meet all the necessary requirements.  If you are only thinking of milking for personal consumption, sheep may be a great option for the farmstead.   


Jeff Fenwick 

Back Forty Artisan Cheese 


Instagram:  back40artisancheese   

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