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NOBA 2021: Penokean Hills Farms is the Company of the Year (1-15 employees)

Collective of cattle farmers produces high-quality beef that's sold to retail and wholesale customers across Ontario

With their high-quality, grass-fed Angus beef earning accolades from consumers across the province, Penokean Hills Farms (PHF) is leading an agricultural resurgence in the Algoma District.

Led by farmers and owners Mike Tulloch and Chris Gordon, the company was formed in 2005 by a group of local producers who came together to create a proprietary system for raising and finishing beef, which is all marketed under the same brand.

Today, beef produced by Penokean Hills Farms – which takes its name from the rolling hills in the area – is in demand at high-end restaurants and specialty butcher shops, as well as by local consumers.

Toronto, in particular, has become a bustling export market for PHF, where more than 90 per cent of their beef is sold. But there are also strong markets in Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Timmins, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Waterloo.

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More than a dozen producers currently farm under the PHF brand, each raising cattle on their own acreage before the animals are relocated to a central finishing farm in Thessalon, where they’re fed a specialty diet of field peas and barley.

The unique mix, which is said to give the meat an earthy flavour, earned PHF a Premier’s Award for Agri-food Innovation Excellence from the province in 2008.

“This group of farmers generates extra income by growing feed crops that are adapted to Northern Ontario conditions,” the province noted in its synopsis. “This, along with a strict genetics protocol and a strong marketing strategy for boxed frozen and fresh beef cuts, is a profitable combination.”

PHF reached a company milestone in 2015 when it purchased the abattoir in Bruce Mines, which was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Over the following four years, PHF revamped the operation’s business plan, implementing a multi-stage traceability program that ensures every step in an animal’s life can be catalogued, all the way from the farm to the plate.

Among curious consumers eager to know the origin and history of the food they’re eating – a growing trend among foodies and casual consumers alike – this means PHF has earned the distinction of being a conscientious producer.

As the popularity of its products have grown, however, the small facility could no longer keep pace with demand, and now plans are underway for a new, 13,000-square-foot abattoir, which will provide the company with four times the space of its current facility.

Last October, the federal funding agency FedNor provided PHF with $1.4 million in funds toward the build, which is ongoing.

In addition to a slaughterhouse, the building will feature a retail shop as well as equipment for smoking, curing and age-drying meat, enabling Penokean Hills to expand into value-added products like jerkeys and pepperettes.

The expansion is expected to grow PHF’s sales by up to 65 per cent.

With increased sales comes the need for added capacity, and so PHF plans to hire between six and 10 employees for the abattoir, adding to their current staff of nine. The company also expects there will be opportunities to bring on more farmers to produce beef under the PHF brand.

PHF is confident that this can lead to Algoma becoming Ontario’s leading provider of premium crafted beef.

“We really believe that Algoma can be known as a niche beef region in Ontario, similar to how we think of Niagara as the wine region of Ontario,” said Chris Gordon, Penokean Hills’ co-owner and manager, last fall.

“And we’re excited to see our vision come into fruition.”

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.