Like the famous cheddar it produces, the St-Albert Cheese Cooperative has aged well. The cooperative is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2019. St-Albert cheese has withstood decades of changes in farming and rural community life to become a staple across Eastern Ontario and beyond.
The cooperative was established in January 8, 1894 when it was formed by founding president Louis Génier and nine others.
Today, there are 35 farmers regularly supplying milk to St-Albert.
“We have less farms, but we have more milk,” said Réjean Ouimet, who served as the cooperative’s General Manager from 1995 to 2012 and remains as an active consultant with the organization today.
The cooperative was under private ownership from 1931 to 1939 when the farmers organized to buy the business back for $8,500.
Ouimet said the bank wanted the farmers to use their land as collateral as part of the effort to re-establish the cooperative, which they did.
“But they didn’t tell their wives,” he said.
The wives were apparently quite upset and afraid they would lose their homes when they did find out what their husbands had done.
In past years, farmers frequently worked for one dollar per hour in the plant to pay off the price of the shares they had purchased in the cooperative. They would volunteer to help with building too.
On one occasion when the cooperative was facing financial difficulty, someone loaned their own money for a month to ensure employees could be paid.
Ouimet said the commitment from past cooperative members is an example of the strength of small towns.
In 1965, supply management—the quota system, was introduced in the dairy industry. Ouimet said it was difficult for some francophone farmers to understand what was being explained to them, but in the long run the system has benefited the cooperative. He noted it how it has grown in the more-than 50 years since the system was introduced and attributed it to the emphasis supply management places on high-quality milk.
In 2007, the cooperative opened a second retail store in Orléans. In 2009, it purchased Fromagerie Mirabel in St-Jérôme.
The cooperative has won several top awards for cheddar over the years at major competitions such as the Royal Winter Fair, British Empire Cheese Show, and the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.
On February 3, 2013 the factory building, which had stood since 1949, was destroyed by fire. However, the same spirit that guided the organization through past challenges prevailed. Production continued under arrangements with other cheese companies and work began almost instantly on plans to rebuild.
Ouimet said the fire was incredibly tiring and emotionally stressful, but the support from the community—and even larger competitors in the dairy products industry, was overwhelming.
The current plant opened in 2014. It includes greater production capacity, a large store, and the restaurant that serves up the well-known varieties of poutine made with St-Albert cheese curds.
According to Ouimet, approximately 150 people now work for the cooperative.
“It’s a big family; people love to work here,” he explained, adding that generations of local families have had members who worked at the cheese factory.
The cooperative has provided funds to community groups to organize anniversary events. A country music show is taking place at the community centre at the end of May. August will be a big month with the attempt to set the Guinness world record for the most threshing machines operating simultaneously on August 11. Starting August 14, the annual Festival de la Curd takes place with four days of music, shows, and activities that celebrate the product St-Albert is famous for.
A major anniversary celebration is also being planned for December at the St-Albert community centre.