Co-creators of Tree Island Yogurt, Merissa Myles and her husband Scott DiGuistini make grass-fed, artisan yogurt at their production plant in the Comox Valley, BC. They’ve earned a reputation as champions of the local food movement—while also shifting the thinking of farmers, retailers, and even the Ministry of Agriculture.
Tree Island uses 100% fresh whole Canadian milk, and is committed to supporting local, grass-fed dairy farms with pastures that promote healthy ecosystems. In short, Merissa and Scott have built a business that is itself a powerful tool for change.
There is a lot of choice in yogurt on grocers’ shelves, but very few guarantee their milk comes from Canada or from grass-fed sources. Scott is proud to say “We are an early innovator—and one of very few. We only use fresh, whole milk in our recipes; there are no foreign milk powders or fillers. It’s very important for us to be part of the food movement and support local farmers.” This is the first shift Tree Island has contributed to making—increasing awareness and demand for Canadian, grass-fed milk. In the four years since they entered the market, yogurt made from fresh, grass-fed milk has gone from zero to be an established line in many local stores.
The second sign of change builds from Tree Island’s commitment to local economics: Yogurt is generally a commodity product; ingredient suppliers tend to be quite industrial. Tree Island, in contrast, is an artisan product made in small batches with real ingredients that often have their own, good story. For example, they use BC honey in their Cream Top yogurt, instead of refined sugar. And their Greek yogurt has real spices brought in by an Indian chef (not artificial flavouring), real organic lemon juice (not from concentrate), and real organic coconut milk and coconut shreds. “You can tell the difference just from the smell! We source high quality ingredients that are nourishing to complement the high quality milk,” Scott explained.
“We’re bringing the relationship and traceability back to dairy.” — Merissa Myles
In the business of yogurt manufacturing, one of Tree Island’s goals is to promote and advocate for standards in grass-fed dairy, bringing awareness to sources of milk. As Merissa describes, “We’re bringing the relationship and traceability back to dairy.”
“It’s really satisfying to be making a high quality product and doing something unique. I also get to work with farmers, retailers, chefs, and customers, and we bring something to our community that’s whole and nourishing.” Most importantly they’re beginning to see the long-term impact of their success: “As we grow, we are demonstrating market demand for grass-fed milk. We have more buying power and are gaining more support and interest from dairy farmers.”
New demand is creating new incentives for farmers.
In the past, farmers wanted all milk marketed the same—as just plain milk. The only differentiation was conventional and organic. This supply management makes for a strong, stable dairy industry, but it’s not without its side effects: Processors could not pay farmers more, or tell any unique story about milk from an individual farm. Through their work with the Ministry of Agriculture and the BC Milk Marketing Board, Scott & Merissa have helped to shift that thinking. Farmers can now be paid a premium for milk that’s innovative—that has a story about the farm or the milk itself. It creates a real incentive for farmers to work in new ways. Merissa explains “Through our success, we’re seeing other local processors starting to create grass-fed products. By creating more demand for grass-fed milk, we are encouraging more farms to look at implementing grass-fed practices.”
“We’re proud of our space in the value chain, telling farmers’ stories and bringing this very high quality product to grocery stores and to their customers.”
With his background in biology and ecology, Scott is also motivated by the land stewardship aspect of grass-fed dairy. “With more cows out to pasture, there is less GMO corn being grown, less use of machinery, less carbon, and more value given to our farmland, to the animals and to where our food comes from.”
Of course, it’s not easy running a capital intensive food processing and manufacturing business. “We’ve been lucky to have such a supportive community, and over the past four years to have built a great team. Our current challenge is more of an existential exercise: “There is demand for our product and genuine interest from the industry,” explains Merissa. “Our business has the potential to be high-impact, promoting grass-fed practices farther afield, but how much can we support as a family business? How can we grow our business to make a greater impact for farming and land stewardship?”
As their business continues to grow, already expanding into Alberta, their vision remains unchanged. They are committed to converting more farmers to grass-fed farming practices. The more milk they buy, the more incentive there is for farmers to innovate.
When they’re not working on Tree Island Yogurt, Scott & Merissa spend as much time as they can with their two young sons, playing outdoors near their home on Vancouver Island.