“How cheese saved my life.”

Petra Cooper’s passion took on a rural focus when she turned to cheese making for health and happiness

Source: Bes Health Magazine, September 2009; Photo: Michael Grills

A postmodern patchwork of Lego-like buildings, the Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company stands out amid the rolling hills of Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The roof is lined with solar panels, a wind turbine spins slowly on a hill, and what looks like a wild field is actually wetlands that are processing and purifying waste products from the factory. Since opening in June 2008, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company hasn’t simply embraced the environmental movement, it has embodied it‘achieving a rare platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the Canada Green Building Council.

But more than being a ‘green’ factory, Fifth Town represents one woman’s entirely remodelled life. Four years ago its founder and CEO, Petra Cooper, was a high-flying executive in the book publishing industry. Today, she has radically shifted gears: running a socially responsible business; spending quality time with her husband, Shawn, and nine-year-old daughter, Augusta; and pushing the local-food and environmental agenda.

‘I’m pretty new to the environmental movement,’ says Cooper, 47. ‘I’m an example of an average person who got on the ‘green’ bus and is doing something.’

Cooper was raised by a bohemian German mother who instilled a hard-work ethic. ‘We never wanted for anything,’ she says, ‘but I learned early that money was the road to independence, because I saw my mother struggle a lot.’ While studying communications at Carleton University, she also developed her business skills, starting a cleaning company that she sold for a tidy profit within two years.

After graduation, Cooper began in the publishing industry as a salesperson, driving around to schools selling textbooks. By the age of just 32 she was vice-president of sales at Wiley Publishing and had 120 people answering to her. ‘It never struck me that I was too young or inexperienced,’ she says. ‘I went into a lot of things without any prior knowledge and learned on the fly.’

Cooper met her husband while doing her MBA at the University of Toronto, and by their mid-30s they were living the good life in New York City. Then Cooper received a life-changing call from her mother in Toronto, who had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Cooper resigned from Wiley and took a job in Toronto at McGraw-Hill, while Shawn commuted to New York for his position as an investment analyst. Now she was working two jobs‘and the one caring for her mother took top priority.

Sadly, her mother died soon afterwards. To cope with her grief, Cooper threw herself into her career, putting in 16-hour days. But the pace began to catch up with her. She suffered a mini-stroke in 1998. Even then’sitting in hospital with no feeling on one side of her body’she continued to work on her laptop. When the doctor recommended she stay for monitoring, Cooper declined. Talking about those crazy days now, she shakes her head at the memory. ‘We had a dinner reservation that night we had waited a year to get. I got out of bed, dragged myself to the airport, and was dining in New York by 9 p.m.’

Even the birth of her daughter, Augusta, in 2000 didn’t slow her down. She barely took any time off, and remembers leaving 10-day-old Augusta between feedings to attend a meeting. ‘I was sitting there with the board of directors,’ she recalls, ‘and my boobs starting leaking’right through my blouse.’

More health scares came: In 2001 Cooper developed a serious case of pneumonia, then contracted Norwalk virus. She left work one afternoon when she was feeling ill, but passed out while driving home in downtown Toronto, crashing into a fence and narrowly missing a gas station. ‘If my mother had been alive,’ says Cooper, ‘she would have asked me if I was out of my mind.’

At that point, something finally clicked within her. ‘Here I was, motherless, and here was my daughter, motherless, because I travelled so much for work,’ she says. ‘I looked at my life and thought: Why am I doing this?’ With her job she’d be home by 7 p.m., and Augusta was in bed by 8. ‘I realized you can buy all the toys you want, but kids really want your time.’

She started thinking of the future. Shawn had grown up in Prince Edward County, Augusta’s grandparents lived there, and the Coopers thought a country lifestyle would be good for their daughter. It was an obvious choice to plan a move. And she was struck with another idea: With a growing wine industry, and a history of agriculture in the county, what would go best with wine? Cheese, of course.

Her new life path was taking shape. Cooper enrolled in a week-long cheese-making course in 2003 at the University of Guelph. She enjoyed it so much that over the next couple of years she used her vacation time to take intensive courses in Vermont, do an internship in California and travel to cheese factories in Europe and North America.

Meanwhile, her publishing career was just as busy as ever, as she and Shawn got plans underway to have a house built in Picton, the county’s main town. She started to connect with other cheese makers, and someone suggested they form an association. Cooper wrote a proposal to start the Ontario Cheese Society, which today has more than 150 members. A committed locavore, Cooper also co-founded Slow Food PEC, a group that promotes local food growers and food appreciation.

Finally, in 2005, to the dismay of her colleagues, and at the height of an 18-year career in publishing, Cooper handed in her resignation. It was time to move on to a different sort of life.

Fifth Town was named for the original ‘fifth town’ that was settled in Upper Canada. In considering what sort of facility her factory would be, Cooper felt compelled to make the business both socially and environmentally responsible.

‘Two things came to mind: First, it is so beautiful out here and I didn’t want to do anything harmful’I didn’t want to take my waste and dump it,’ says Cooper, who made the permanent move to Picton in 2006. ‘Second, I live across the street from the factory. You start thinking about your neighbours as much as yourself out in the country.’

Cooper is trying to reduce her carbon footprint. ‘When we started out, I went to websites like Zero Footprint and measured the impact I was having,’ she says. ‘In the last two to three years we’ve definitely reduced our carbon footprint. We built our house as green as possible. But I still drive’telling a rural person to do without their car is impossible. You can’t be too dogmatic about environmentalism.’

While the factory was being built, Cooper experimented with cheese recipes, hired a senior cheese maker and went about finding farmers. Supporting local agricultural development was her primary goal.

She decided to focus on goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese. ‘Goats and sheep are better for the environment,’ she says. ‘They don’t eat as much food as cows, and are efficient little animals’they take up less land space, and they graze on grass. They don’t need bales of hay, like cattle.’ Cooper bought a ¾-ton truck she uses to pick up fresh milk from seven farms to make her cheese.

Some of her neighbours were skeptical of this newcomer. Many a Prince Edward County resident has seen big-city types come in with big ideas that go nowhere. Todd Burley, a sixth-generation county farmer, met Cooper back at the beginning of her venture. He began by helping maintain the land on which Fifth Town now stands, and then was trained in-house for the role of associate cheese maker. Burley quickly recognized that Cooper’s ambitions weren’t simply flights of fancy. ‘She’s here to stay’she has put in the time and commitment,’ Burley says, with a hint of admiration in his voice, adding quietly: ‘And she has balls.’

Shawn, now managing director for a headhunter company in Toronto, is an investor in Fifth Town, but it is clearly understood that the business is Petra’s. ‘I bounce ideas off him, but he doesn’t play an operational role,’ she says. ‘We’d kill each other if he did.’

In just over a year of operation, Fifth Town has won several awards, including three first-prize ribbons and one Grand Champion title at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto. Cooper may still be working long hours, but it is on her terms. ‘I have more control,’ she says, ‘and I can integrate Augusta into everything I do. She comes to the farms with me, and helps out in the store. We eat dinner together every night, and I’m home to help her with her homework.’

It’s no surprise that Cooper is also a lot healthier. ‘When you start looking for wellness in your life, you have to make choices. I chose to step off one track and move onto a new one with different dynamics. And this path has had huge rewards.’

This article was originally titled "Petra Cooper’s change of heart" in the September 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.