A decade ago, Cory Spencer traded in his comfortable professional life as a software developer in Vancouver for a plot of land and a herd of goats. Now, nearly 11 years later, he wouldn’t change a thing.
Spencer and his wife, Kirsten Thorarinson, run the farm and cheese manufacturer now known as Haltwhistle Cheese Company, located in Glenora, a small farming community in the Cowichan Valley. Since 2010, his herd of goats has grown from 30 to 150, and his cheesemaking has expanded to include cow’s milk and, soon, sheep’s milk.
He tells The Discourse that starting a farm and growing a business wasn’t easy, particularly in the early years.
“It was quite a change moving from software to farming,” Spencer says.
If he’d stuck with software development, he’d be working much less for far more money, but he says he has no regrets.
“It’s a great lifestyle,” Spencer says. “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Trading a keyboard for a goat herd
Nearly 15 years ago, Spencer realized something was missing from his life. His passion for software, the field in which he got his PhD, wasn’t there anymore.
“I didn’t feel like I … really made a difference,” he says. “I could have not done a lot of the work that I’d done as a software developer and the world would have been better off, or the same.”
Spencer quickly became infatuated with the idea of cheesemaking. In 2008, he took his first cheesemaking class on Salt Spring Island. He later took an agriculture course through UBC Farm, a facility on UBC’s campus run by the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, and even travelled to Northern England and Southern France to learn from local cheesemakers.
With this experience in hand and a desire to shake up their lives, Spencer and Thorarinson moved to the Cowichan Valley with a small herd of goats and settled on an agricultural property in Glenora.
Cowichan Valley newcomers
After deciding to pursue cheesemaking full-time, the couple set out to find a location that would suit their needs. Eventually, they agreed on the vibrant community of Cowichan Valley, where Thorarinson’s family lives.
“We found the right place that made sense to get started and it just happened to be that it was in the Cowichan Valley,” Spencer says. “It wasn’t a conscious choice. It was just more luck and happenstance.”
Though it may have been luck that drove them to the Cowichan Valley, it’s clear the community has come to mean a lot to the young family.
“A lot of the farming community around us [have] become our good friends. It’s a support network — we all go through the same rigours of being farmers,” Spencer says.
The couple first arrived in Glenora in 2010 with around 30 goats. Without the proper facilities, they spent their first four years selling milk to Hilary’s Cheese Company, another artisan cheesemaker in the area. By 2014, they completed plans for a cheese plant of their own.
Soon enough, Spencer started making the couple’s first batches of cheese, and they distributed to the public through farmers’ markets under the Happy Goat Cheese Company name.
Farmers’ markets are often the entry point into the community for artisan food producers. For Spencer, the farmers’ market is a relief, both as an escape from the farm and a rare opportunity to get some social interaction.
“It’s actually one of my favourite days,” he says. “It’s the most social interaction that I’ll get in a week.”
Evolution and expansion
After four years as the Happy Goat Cheese Company and plenty of success in cheesemaking, Spencer and Thorarinson decided to expand their products into cheeses made from cow’s milk in 2018.
The couple adopted a new name to mark the change: Haltwhistle, the name of a town in Northern England where Spencer learned the trade.
Haltwhistle partnered with Balme Ayre Farms in Cobble Hill to use their Ayrshire cow’s milk for cheesemaking. Ayshire milk is high in fat, which Spencer says produces unique flavours and textures.
The expansion into dairy understandably led to an increase in sales, but according to Spencer it was the name change that increased sales the most — their market sales reportedly doubled over a three-month period.
Spencer credits this rapid expansion to the negative association some consumers have with goat’s cheeses.
“By removing that association with goats, we can bring in a lot more people who come and try our cheeses as opposed to seeing goat and assuming it was a stinky, gross cheese,” he explains.
Staying local and sustainable
Spencer emphasized a desire to keep the business as sustainable as possible, and staying local by sourcing ingredients from nearby producers is a major part of that.
“We’re not trying to emulate any cheeses that we’ve found in Europe, or Canada, or the U.S.,” Spencer says. “Local [ingredients] are reflective of this place and this time.”
When asked about what else Haltwhistle does to promote sustainability, Spencer outlined his business’ simple philosophy.
“I’m just farming the ways that seem right — I’m not going out of my way to be sustainable,” he says. “But at the same time, I want to minimize my footprint.”
Spencer says Haltwhistle has open fields the goats use as pastures, which are fertilized with those same goats’ manure to eliminate the need for chemical sprays or fertilizers.
“We’re trying to build the soils as opposed to just taking from them,” he says.
The future of Vancouver Island cheesemaking
Today, Haltwhistle is one of the only companies producing cheese in the Cowichan Valley. Their products can be found at farmers’ markets across Vancouver Island, like the Great Greens Farm Market in Cowichan Bay or the Duncan Farmers Market.
Spencer and Thorarinson have come a long way in the last ten years. They uprooted their lives and took on a massive challenge by starting a farm and a business. Spencer tells The Discourse the family is comfortable where they are, but farming has taken away some luxuries from their old life.
“We used to get away for two-week trips to some sort of remote tropical destination,” he explains. “We’re not able to do that anymore, but I’m okay with that.”
Spencer welcomes the idea of others following his family’s lead.
“I would love to see more cheesemakers in the Valley. … I don’t have a lot of colleagues to talk to,” he says. “I’m not worried about the competition at all. I think there’s lots of room for that sort of thing.”
When asked if he could give one piece of advice to a new farmer trying to establish a similar lifestyle, Spencer stressed the importance of planning and realism.
“Have a good plan — [have] realistic expectations of how much you expect to make and how much you’re going to have to produce to make that happen.”
This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.