As dairy cooperatives go, Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) is as unique as they come – unique in origin, and unique in its solitary product branding. But mostly, TCCA is unique in its distinctive stewardship and commitment to its farmer-owners, employees and its community.
Founded in 1909 as a farmer-owned cooperative, TCCA is owned by almost 80 farming families, primarily based in Tillamook County, Ore. The cooperative operates production facilities in Tillamook and Boardman, Ore., and employs more than 900 people throughout the state.
The Tillamook County Creamery is the largest tourist attraction on the coast of Oregon and one of the most popular in the state, attracting more than one million visitors each year.
At the beginning
When the settlers landed in Tillamook County back in the 1800s, they cleared the fields, cultivated the land and started producing dairy. They sold their dairy products to the more populated Portland market in Oregon at the time, and several small creameries came together to ensure that all cheese made in the Tillamook Valley was consistent and high quality.
“Those creameries all merged together into the Tillamook County Creamery Association,” said Patrick Criteser, president and chief executive officer, TCCA. “They started stamping the name of the county on the rind of the cheese they were producing, and that established Tillamook as a cheese brand. So we’ve been a cooperative ever since, which means we’re farmer-owned and farmer-governed. But the unique aspect of our business, of course, is the establishment of that Tillamook brand back in 1909.”
Today, 90% of TCCA’s business as a company is branded business.
“We’re a bit unique in that we’re both a 113-year-old farmer-owned cooperative, and one of the fastest-growing premium food brands in the United States,” Criteser said.
TCCA produces internationally recognized, award-winning cheese, as well as ice cream, butter, cream cheese spreads, yogurt, and sour cream.
“We don’t co-manufacturer for, let’s say, private brands, store-own brands, or other brands,” Criteser explained. “We also do not acquire other brands. We are very unique in this aspect. A single brand across the grocery store in multiple different dairy categories is pretty unique. For a cooperative, you don’t see yogurt, ice cream, butter and cheese all under the same brand. So, those things are unique about TCCA.”
That brand is also the name of the county, the name of the town, and the name of the high school. In fact, the high school mascot is the “Cheesemakers.”
“We’re very much linked to this place, Tillamook,” Criteser said. “We are committed and authentically grounded in this particular community that is so much a part of our history.”
Stewardship and technology
In 2017, TCCA’s board of directors voted into force the cooperative’s stewardship commitment.
“Our board told us explicitly in management that they wanted us to consider six stakeholders between our cows and our farms, our communities and the environment, our employees, and our consumers,” said Paul Snyder, executive vice president, stewardship, TCCA. “I’m really proud, quite frankly, to work for a company that took this stakeholder approach to the business a long time before a lot of other companies started talking about it. That was really where the core of our commitment to all of these stakeholders that have been around with the company since we were founded really became memorialized and enforced in policy.”
TCCA is committed to large-scale sustainability initiatives at the regional, national and global levels. Its values and stewardship commitments are aligned with and inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Dairy Sustainability Framework Global Criteria, Innovation Center for US Dairy Stewardship Commitment, and National Milk Producers Federation FARM program.
TCCA leverages its stewardship efforts and technology to help reach its goals. In fact, they are part and parcel of TCCA’s values-based, community-driven belief that everyone deserves real food that makes them feel good every day, made in the most natural, sustainable way possible.
“TCCA has been around for 100-plus years, and we want to be around for a hundred more,” Snyder said. “In order to do this, we need to make sure our farms are thriving, our communities are strong, our environment is resilient, and our people and animals are well taken care of. When we do well, our communities do well.”
As part of the Tillamook Cares volunteer program, TCCA employees receive eight paid volunteer hours per year. In 2020, TCCA employees volunteered 8,516 hours in service to the community, according to the company’s 2020 Stewardship Report. Employee donations to nonprofits are also matched by the company, up to $500 per employee annually.
In 2020, TCCA launched a $4 million COVID Relief plan.
“We launched the plan to support our hometown communities and our employees during the pandemic,” Snyder said. “When COVID-19 upended the communities where we work and the lives of TCCA employees, we stepped up with the support they needed.”
Moreover, TCCA donates 4% of the cooperative’s net profit to the community every year.
“In 2020, we went far above that 4% commitment because we layered on top of it an increased COVID response with our All For Farmers campaign, and increased food donations,” Snyder said.
TCCA leverages technology by way of its environmental and cow care programs.
“We use 100% renewable energy at our Creamery visitor’s center in Tillamook County,” Snyder said. “We also utilize biodigesters, an innovative technology to convert waste into energy, fertilizer and bedding. Many of our farmer-owners and milk suppliers are already using digesters to convert manure into clean energy, and we are looking into ways to increase adoption of this practice.”
The Stewardship Report also states that TCCA evaluates every load of milk that enters its Tillamook and Boardman plants by taking milk samples and analyzing them at its lab, providing data back to farmer-owners — including somatic cell count, bacteria counts and cultures, milk components, and MUN for protein utilization monitoring — so they have timely information to address herd health, nutrition and milk quality.
TCCA also works with farmer-owners to analyze data around electricity use, which has led to electricity savings projects on farms like upgrading equipment and installing LED lights. Many farmers also practice cover cropping and soil sampling to monitor soil health. Some farms even use digitized manure records to monitor manure application. In 2020, TCCA piloted FARM ES, a third-party, voluntary program that assesses greenhouse gases on farms.
Many farmer-owners also use electronic activity monitors to get dependable, real-time data about their cows’ wellbeing. Much like the technology people use to track their physical activity, these devices track a cow’s movement. It also tracks other, non-human activities such as rumination by listening in on the number of chews per hour. TCCA said that with this data, farmers can provide cows with immediate care that could benefit the entire herd.
Snyder said one of the things he thinks is really fascinating about the industry is the role technology plays in dairy, and how underappreciated or unknown it is among the general public.
“Our dairy farmers are scientists, agronomists, chemists and biologists, all in one,” he said. “They leverage technology in some really interesting ways, not only to produce fantastic food, but to produce it in a way that we can all be proud of. That being said, we are always looking at new technologies with regard to dairy production in terms of base production itself, but also more specifically in my area, the environmental aspect of its production.”
Criteser added that most consumers today are multiple generations away from any familiarity with agriculture.
“We see a lot of value in helping people in cities, and everywhere else in the country, understand more about agriculture and to leave behind some of the old stereotypes about how food is produced and how agriculture is cultivated,” he said. “We certainly feel like there’s an important role for the entire food system. But for a unique company like ours, that’s farmer-owned, we want to help consumers better understand where their food comes from and how innovative, hard-working and creative today’s farmers are in terms of caring for the environment and natural resources and producing the highest-quality, safest, most consistent, most cost-effective food in the country and everywhere in the world.”
TCCA also plays a role in shortening the distance between food producers and consumers. TCCA’s All For Farmers initiative, a partnership with American Farmland Trust, supports a grant program that raises money for farmers in need across the country. The initiative also aims to raise awareness on the challenges of farming and the resiliency of farmers.
Certified B corp
In fall 2020, Tillamook earned B Corp certification, which underscores its commitment to stewardship. A Certified B Corporation meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability.
“It’s a rigorous certification process reviewed every three years that measures a company’s performance in five categories – governance, workers, customers, community and the environment,” Snyder said. “Which, for us, was basically an endorsement of the things that we had been doing even before we started that B Corp certification, because we didn’t have to change much about ourselves in order to get it. It is our commitment out there that says we’ve made a promise to all of our stakeholders about the kind of values- and purpose-driven company we’ll be.”
Stewardship has been part of TCCA since day one, Synder said.
“When the Tillamook County Creamery Association was created, our farmer-owners built everything with a long-term outlook – to ensure that farms and communities are here for generations to come,” he said. “In recent years we’ve doubled down on our commitment to stewardship and have accelerated the work in all aspects of our business.”
The Tillamook brand includes more than 340 items in six categories. Recent data shows that nearly one in four households in the United States buys Tillamook-branded products.
TCCA recently introduced Tillamook Frozen Custards made with at least 16% butterfat, extra cream, cage-free eggs and no bio-engineered ingredients. The cooperative also rolled out Tillamook Farmstyle Cream Cheese Spreads in a variety of flavors.
According to IRI, since the end of 2019, the packaged food industry has grown about 19%, with the Refrigerated and Frozen Foods category growing about 21%.
Tillamook products outpaced both of these rates with a 38% increase in overall brand sales in the past two years (according to IRI data from the 52-week period ending Dec. 26, 2021 versus the 52-week period ending Dec. 19, 2019). In terms of absolute dollars sales from IRI’s 52-week period ending Dec. 26, 2021, Tillamook is also the fastest-growing family-size ice cream brand in the United States.
TCCA has been rapidly expanding the brand, particularly over the past five years.
“We set out to expand the brand nationally in a way that would allow for consumers across the country to enjoy our products,” Criteser said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve doubled the size of the company, and are now enjoyed in one quarter of US households.”
Criteser said that one of TCCA’s biggest drivers of success and innovation is its ability to attract amazing people to work for the company.
“We believe that when everyone can contribute their ideas, we can be successful,” he said. “Our employees and culture truly drive innovation.”
Innovation shows up in other ways at TCCA, too. Erin Kelleway, director of strategic sourcing at TCCA, said innovation can be seen as a new way of operating to keep costs down, improve quality, reduce environmental impacts, or other improvements that allow business to thrive.
“The pandemic has highlighted how important proactive, innovative thinking is, as it allows companies to be agile and combat inflationary pressures and labor constraints,” Kelleway said. “That being said, automation plays a huge part when it comes to efficiency, especially during labor constraints. For example, something as simple as an automatic boxer or palletizer can help reduce production bottlenecks. This simple yet effective innovation can offset costs.”
Being flexible and able to adjust to current conditions is critical to overcoming any production challenge, Kelleway said.
“Having robust quality processes and line maintenance, understanding potential supply chain risk, nurturing long-term relationships with suppliers, and having risk mitigation plans in place can help avoid a lot of potential issues,” she said.
Company culture also plays a huge role in overcoming production challenges.
“Our culture drives us to seek suppliers with a similar passion for our brand and similar core values to our own with whom we foster open communication,” Kellaway said. “We find that by having supplier relationships where quality is a driving force, and where we focus on more than just money, challenges are infrequent. And if they do occur, we can work through the challenge together.”
When a brand is as passionate about quality and its values, packaging technologies and materials are continually being reviewed, Kelleway said.
“We are always seeking ways to deliver the highest-quality products to our consumers while considering our commitments to the environment and long-term sustainability,” she said. “Working with suppliers that are innovative and proactively developing new technologies and materials are a significant part of our long-term packaging strategy.”
TCCA announced goals earlier this year in order to improve product packaging and its carbon performance. TCCA is faced with the challenge of minimizing packaging’s carbon impact without compromising on function, safety and taste.
TCCA is dedicated to the following five packaging goals:
• Avoid additional and unnecessary packaging while prioritizing the uncompromising quality of its products and the reduction of food waste.
• Commit 100% of its packaging solutions to being recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2030.
• Increase recycled content to 20% (on average) in its plastic packaging by 2025 and eliminate use of all virgin plastic by 2035.
• Source all virgin paper packaging from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified materials and use 50% or more recycled fiber by 2025.
• Educate consumers on ways to reduce food waste and properly dispose, recycle or reuse Tillamook packages.