Jean Morin’s passion has turned his fourth-generation family milk farm into an award-winning cheese-making operation. Photo: John Boivin

Award-winning cheese maker visits Rossland

The story of Jean Morin’s cheese operation is a lesson other small towns can learn

Jean Morin is quick to tell point out he’s not here to tell you how to live your life or run your business.

“I’m a farmer, not an educator,” says Morin.

But you can learn a lot about life — and your community — by listening to this fit, bright-eyed, middle-aged farmer from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.

Morin was in Rossland last week to take part in the Rotary Club’s Wine and Fromage — an Evening of Excellence. The event was held at the Josie Hotel on the weekend.

He was the “Fromage” part of the event — an award winning cheese-maker, his products have been celebrated both in his home province and across the country.

“It is a passion for me,” says Morin, in his thick Quebecois accent. “Twenty-five years ago I went to France, and ate some of the cheese there. And I said to myself, ‘why not me? I can do this.’”

A fourth-generation farmer, Morin’s family had the most basic ingredients of any cheese-making operation: pasture and milk cattle. But not much else.

He began taking classes, and learning the basics, at nearby cheese-making operations.

But when opportunity knocked, he was ready. His town, Saint-Élizabeth-de-Warwick, is little more than a church and a few homes at a crossroads. But the church’s residence for a priest, the rectory (presbytère in French) was empty, and up for sale. Morin and his family bought it, and 12 years ago cheese making started in earnest.

“It was a dream to make a wheel of cheese, with raw, organic milk,” he recalls. “Cheese is interesting. It tastes different after nine months, after a year, and it has a different taste after two years.

“It’s the same milk, and it’s the same grass, and it’s the same cheese, but it keeps tasting different. So that was the passion for me, to change grass into cheese.”

The accolades soon came. In his first year he won for a blue cheese he produced. Then followed more provincial and national awards. In 2017, the cheeses produced by his operation, the Fromagerie du Presbytère, took home seven Quebec industry awards. It hasn’t slowed down since.

Now, Morin travels the country, promoting his company’s cheeses to the larger world, just as the Canadian dairy industry is being pried open to competition by international trade agreements. The goal is to get the Presbytère’s cheeses in more local stores across the country (you can find FdP’s cheeses in the deli department at Ferraro’s in Rossland and Trail).

“I say that our cheese is made far from here in Rossland, but if it’s from Canada, it’s local,” he says. “The wine is local if it’s from B.C. If it’s cheese from Switzerland, I’m sure that’s not local.

“I always ask everybody to take care of what you eat, watch where it is from. It is important for Canada, for the region, for our village.”

And Morin’s village has been an unexpected beneficiary from his fromagerie’s success.

A few years after he started cheese-making, people started coming out to sample the products on Fridays. Then more people came, bringing a bottle of wine and a picnic basket with bread and meats. Nowadays, anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people can show up on a summer Friday night to sample pure, locally made food.

Now there are no more empty homes for sale in Saint-Élizabeth-de-Warwick. The gas station’s doing well, and the grocery store’s re-opened. Twenty people have jobs at the fromagerie, and that will likely grow in the future. The town has come alive again, all on the passion of one man for cheese.

“We make everybody proud to be here, proud to be farming, proud to be making good products,” he says.

The dairy’s roots in the church and community are reflected in the weekly event, says Morin.

“Shared time is one of the best thing about Fridays,” he says. “We share wine, share music, share cheese. Everyone acts like friends, we’re all very close.

“It’s like church communion, we’ve just moved it out to the front porch and the garden.”

A farmer in Alberta asked Morin if he could build a new rectory in that province and make the cheese there.

“You can build a new presbytery, but you can’t build a soul,” says Morin.

“And the cheese has a soul. The presbytery has a soul. A lot of people came by and say ‘wow, this is a special building, because of its soul.’”

All the success has hardly gone to Morin’s head. As he points out, if you want to be a millionaire, you don’t do it by farming.

But he’s proud of his achievement, and is content in the excellence he creates in his very small part of this world.

“I am very proud for the family, very proud for agriculture, for creating high-quality, fine food.”

And he’d like people living in other small towns, towns that are stagnant or slowly fading, or can’t catch a break, to know there’s hope for them too… simply by being in love with what you do.

“How I inspire people is probably by sharing my passion for what I do,” he says. “You may not be able to buy an empty church, but you can invest in your passion. Ask yourself what is important to your family, to your village? What do you love in your village, what is nice in it? What is in your soul, and your community?

“And then yes! Anyone can do what St. Elizabeth has.”

As for what the future will bring, Morin has a single simple goal.

“Not to make more cheese, but to make it better,” he says. “I’m not there to make lots of money, that’s not my goal, never. I have to make the best cheese and have a lot of people happy around me.”

“I am a spreader of bonheur,” he says, smiling.

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