The den Haans are a multi-generational dairy farming family driven by a passion for quality, local food and an ingenuity that comes from a shared entrepreneurial spark. In fact, the vast majority of Ontario dairy farms are family owned and operated, producing quality local milk to some of the highest standards in the world, a vocation that can bring a myriad of joys and almost as many trials. Dairy farmer and matriarch Bonnie den Haan sums it up very well: “Things sometimes hit the rocks, but if you keep your cool, think about things long enough and ask the right people for help, things will work out.”
Haanview Farms started in 1952, with Bonnie and John den Haan taking over from John’s parents in 1981 and opened Sheldon Creek Dairy in 2012. Today the farm and dairy are operated by Bonnie, John, their daughters Marianne and Emily and Marianne’s husband, Mike Edward. Over time, each family member gravitated to a role where their individual talents could help shape and grow the family business.
Emily—a natural with animals who famously could tell each of the cows apart by appearance and personality in grade school—is now responsible for the care of the family dairy cow herd. She shares the short version of the family history. “Our opa and oma had a milk run, delivering milk and cream to doorsteps in Holland. They moved to Canada after the war and were sponsored by a farm about a half-hour away from our farm now. They started Haanview Farms with a single cow from the sponsored farm who had a piece of glass in her foot and was headed for slaughter. They bought her, nursed her back to health and that cow, Maggie, is the matriarch for 75 per cent of our herd. If you come into our barn today, any of the cows whose names start with M can trace their line back to 1962, to that original cow.”
Ever since Haanview Farms shipped its first batch of milk, their story is a history of collaboration, community activism and entrepreneurship. Always passionate about quality local food and ingredients, Bonnie and John made the decision to explore building an on-farm dairy. “This was a time when we had people coming to the farm asking for raw milk, which we could not sell, of course.” shares Bonnie. “It showed us, however, that if we could produce a natural product with the taste of raw milk, there was a market for it. In 2010 we started planning to build our own dairy and in 2012, we opened.
“Mom had a corn stand at the end of the driveway, and people from the city would come up for ‘Bonnie’s Corn’,” explains Marianne, who manages product development and marketing at Sheldon Creek. “We knew that people would make the drive for something that was really good. In May 2012, we did our first batch of 300 litres. It was probably the scariest thing we’ve ever done. It took nine hours. In comparison, we could do 6,000 litres in nine hours now, maybe even more. It was peanuts.”
After their first successful production, the family at first celebrated, and quickly realized they had to sell the milk. They started small and local, and when a Toronto newspaper wrote a story about their milk, city customers made the drive all summer to pick up their milk. The family knew they needed to find retailers in the city to get through the winter, so Marianne would make her sales visits when she visited her then-boyfriend (and now husband) Mike, who lived in Toronto.
“At first, store owners didn’t see the point in adding another milk to their dairy shelves, but then they tasted it,” says Bonnie. “Tasting the milk really sold it. They loved the chocolate milk, of course, but the reaction to the white milk was just as enthusiastic.”
Marianne attributes some of the success of their business to growing consumer interest in locally grown, raised and produced food. “In 2012, people started to really grab hold of the idea of “local”. A lot of the retailers we approached were independent, family-owned businesses who were serving customers looking for unique, local products. At the time, there weren’t a lot of dairy products offered in glass bottles, so our milk stood out. Our white and chocolate milk were selling well, but what really launched us the first year was our Holiday Eggnog. We wanted to make an eggnog that even eggnog “haters” loved. We didn’t want it to be thick — more like a sweetened milk. Other than Dad, none of us really liked eggnog.
We sat around the kitchen table, and kept making batches and tasting them, adjusting the sweetness and spice. When we all finally loved it, we put it out there and it was featured in a lot of media articles. It became the centrepiece of dinner tables over the holidays and a kind of conversation piece or a host gift. That really helped spread the word about Sheldon Creek Dairy. People who had always despised eggnog were converted, and now they want more from the source.”
Flavoured milks have grown into one of the most unique and popular aspects of the dairy’s business, and have moved beyond eggnog to creative flavours like Pumpkin Spice, Salted Caramel and now Banana. Their popular Neapolitan flavour was actually born out of a production calamity. When Bonnie and John went on a short vacation to visit another dairy in Alberta, the girls were left in charge of the farm and dairy. Some of the natural strawberry flavouring was accidentally mixed into the chocolate milk on the production line — a mistake that was uncovered at a 4H meeting Emily was hosting. The hybrid milk flavour was actually delicious and tasted just like Neapolitan ice cream. Not wanting to waste the product or upset their parents, Marianne and Emily jumped into action. When Bonnie and John were asked about their “new product” while on their dairy tour, they were puzzled. Later, they discovered Sheldon Creek Dairy had launched a new flavour, “Neapolitan Milk” on social media. It sold out and has become a regular offering at the dairy.
While it’s no surprise that children rave about their flavoured milks, the den Haans also develop their flavour profiles with professional and home mixologists in mind. “Our creamsicle milk is amazing with vodka”, Marianne says. “When we’re developing a new flavour, we always think about how it might be elevated in a cocktail or mocktail. Already our customers are sharing plans to add Irish cream liqueur to our new S’mores flavour. Some of their ideas are incredible.”
Family gatherings are joyful, loud affairs and usually take place at Bonnie’s house. The heart of the house has always been the kitchen island, and when Bonnie and John built their “retirement house”, they designed their new island twice the size. Marianne admits that it’s hard to separate work from life in a family-owned business. “At our gatherings, we eat and drink and talk about the industry. I feel a little bad for those who have joined our family. My husband Mike does not come from a farming family, but he’s learned an incredible amount at those dinners. When we come together we exchange our collective knowledge about various aspects of the industry.”
Emily acknowledges that family celebrations still revolve around farm realities, but insists that these are some of her favourite parts of holidays and gatherings. “We’d always head out to the barn to do our chores before enjoying our day and each others’ company. We still celebrate the same way.”
Bonnie and John’s greatest source of pride has been “watching the kids make the business their own. Emily just changed all the feed rations in the barn, and Marianne just developed clotted cream. We’ve built up the farm and have been through a lot.”
“There’s no greater joy than driving down the road and looking at what you have and thinking about where it has come from and all the stories that intertwined to get it to where it is today.” says Marianne. “Seeing that hard work and love and watching it come to fruition; it’s prosperous because there was no alternative. All of the opportunities and the future – there’s something so exciting about that. If my opa and oma were still here and they saw what the farm is now, they’d be shocked, but they’d be so proud.”