Traditions run 100-years deep at Tillamook County Creamery

By Anne Todd
USDA Rural Development

he two photos were taken 93 years apart. But the grainy, blackand- white photo taken on the Hurliman dairy farm in 1915 and the color digital photo snapped at the same location in 2008 tell a story of an unbroken chain of traditional, pasture-based dairy farming and cooperation among producers in the Tillamook Valley of northwestern Oregon.

For 100 years now, the story of dairy farming in this beautiful slice of coastal Oregon has been the story of the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA), a dairy cooperative that is celebrating its centennial anniversary all year long.

The technology in the milking parlor may have changed greatly over the years, but it all still boils down to dairy farmers who know their craft and maintain well-cared-for dairy herds that produce high-quality milk, then processing it into a line of awardwinning cheeses sold under the farmers’ own brand.

Nick Hurliman’s family has a relationship with TCCA that stretches back four generations, almost to the very beginning of the cooperative. In 1915, Hurliman’s great-grandfather and his two sons bought their dairy farm in Woods, on the northern coast of Oregon, about a mile from the Pacific shore and 20 miles south of Tillamook.

TCCA was formed in 1909, just six years before the Hurlimans started their farm. At the time, many small, independent cheese plants dotted the county. Ten of these independent cheese producers founded TCCA, deciding to join forces in a farmerowned cooperative that could control cheese quality.

Another goal of the new co-op was to market cheese as a product coming from the county itself, instead of one coming from the various individual plants.

The Hurlimans’ farm is pasturebased, as are most of the co-op’s dairy farms. Cows graze outside and are milked twice daily. The family milks about 80 to 85 cows, mostly Holsteins, and has 120 acres of bottomland, 90 acres of hill land and rents 80 acres from neighbors.

Like other dairymen across the country, Tillamook farmers have been affected by the steep drop in milk prices this year and the overall economic downturn. “Obviously, we’re not making as much as we have in past years,” Hurliman remarks. “But we live conservatively and we’ll get through it. Farming has always been an up-anddown occupation.”

Early days of co-op
The TCCA story begins in the 1850s, when the first settlers arrived and began establishing farms. But it took a giant leap forward in 1894, when a successful dairy entrepreneur named T. S. Townsend started the first commercial cheese plant in Tillamook. He took 30 orders for cows from local farmers, then went to Portland, Ore., to purchase the cows and equipment he would need to start a milk pool and run a cheese plant. He also hired Canadian cheesemaker Peter McIntosh, who was experienced with the cheddaring process and brought a recipe for cheddar cheese with him.

By 1909, when the TCCA cooperative was launched, Tillamook County was already well known for its cheese. Although Townsend was the first in the county to establish a commercial cheese plant, other organized, commercial cheesemakers settled there too. By 1904, cheesemaking in Tillamook County had advanced in quality to the extent that a cheese from Tillamook County won first place at that year’s St. Louis World’s Fair.

In the late 1940s, four of the larger independent plants in the county merged. In partnership with TCCA, they built a large, centrally located plant north of the town of Tillamook. This plant is still part of the TCCA facility today.

By 1968, all of the smaller local cheese plants in the county had merged and consolidated their operations under TCCA and had moved their cheese production to TCCA’s central plant. This marked the beginning of the cooperative’s operations as a single unit with all of the smaller plants unified as one organization.

Hurliman’s grandfather, father and younger brother have all served on the Tillamook board of directors at various times in the past. Hurliman, an avid outdoorsman, attends all member meetings and says he feels that his voice is heard on important issues. “We get very good communication from Tillamook. They have a really good management team,” he says.

Marking the anniversary
Little did the 10 producers who banded together in 1909 to protect the quality of their Tillamook cheese know that they were creating a cooperative and product that would grow over the years into an award-winning, nationally recognized brand.

TCCA has scheduled events throughout the year to mark the centennial. The co-op launched a new website,, that is an on-line resource center and community for fans of Tillamook products. They also launched an online store that offers cheese, Tillamook apparel and other gifts. It is also offering a special limited-edition anniversary cheese.

“The name Tillamook is pretty famous,” says Hurliman. “I feel privileged to belong with Tillamook. It’s farmer-owned, dependable and gives us good prices.”

Today, the TCCA cooperative is owned and operated by 110 family dairy farmers living in the Tillamook region, such as the Hurlimans, who work the land, milk the cows and set the policies and direction. Profits from the cooperative go back to the farmerowners to help them keep their dairies economically sustainable.

In addition to its premiere cheeses — including several varieties of cheddar, mozzarella, colby, flavored cheeses, Monterey jack, pepper jack and colby jack cheese — TCCA has expanded its dairy offerings to include ice cream, butter, sour cream and yogurt. Tillamook cheese is available in groceries throughout the United States, but availability of other products currently is mostly limited to the western states.

Significant plant improvements were made in the 1990s, including the addition in 1990 of a new cheesemaking room and the transition to a new, fully automated cheddaring system known as the “Cheddarmaster,” a stainless-steel piece of equipment that drains the whey from the curd and aids in the cheddaring process.

State-of-the-art visitors center
Tillamook is also home to the Tillamook Cheese Factory’s Visitors Center, the most visited tourist attraction on the Oregon Coast, according to the Tillamook Area Chamber of Commerce. It started in the 1950s when the co-op added a small cheese shop for visitors at the plant.

In 1979, TCCA opened an expanded Visitors Center for the public, which provides an observation area, an educational slide show, a museum, deli and fudge counters, and an ice creamdipping counter.

The Visitors Center accommodates nearly 1 million tourists each year.

TCCA’s farmers strive to produce the highest quality milk possible. In order to achieve this, they must meet many rigorous quality requirements set by their co-op. One major factor that has led to the co-op’s success in meeting this objective is its focus on animal care.

All Tillamook cheese and other dairy products are produced with milk from cows that are not supplemented with artificial growth hormones (rBST).

In keeping with Tillamook’s guiding principles, Hurliman considers himself a good steward of the environment. “Lately, farmers have been ‘branded’ as the problem, but farming is environmental,” he says. “If you don’t take good care of your cows and your land, you don’t make any money.”

The Tillamook tradition
TCCA considers cheesemaking an art form, and the co-op works hard to carry on the traditions and values started by its founders many generations ago. The co-op is also committed to improving the economic, social and environmental well-being of the communities in which it operates.

TCCA has reaped many dividends from its business practices and commitment to its members and the community. For example, the cooperative won six awards for its cheddar cheeses at the 2008 National Milk Producers Federation annual cheese contest. For the third year in a row, TCCA was recognized by the Portland Business Journal as a Most Admired Company in Oregon for agriculture or forestry products.

The foundation for this century of success, of course, is the co-op’s farmerowners, such as Hurliman.

“Farming gets into your blood; it’s what I know. I wouldn’t know what else to do,” Hurliman says. He hopes to pass the family dairy tradition to his son, who is 34 and has two children of his own. “It’s hard to think about it now, since things are tough right now,” he says. But he is optimistic about the future of dairy farming in Oregon and of his co-op.

Asked if he thinks Tillamook County Creamery Association will still be around in another 100 years, Hurliman replies: “I hope so. I really hope so. A lot depends on the decisions made in Washington. But we’ll keep taking care of the farm for future generations, and Tillamook is a well-run co-op. So I think so.”

For more information about TCCA, its centennial activities and products, visit its Web site at www.tillamook or contact them at 4175 Highway 101 North, Tillamook, Ore. 97141, phone (503) 815-1300.

Tillamook’s commitment to community
includes environmental stewardship

Tillamook County Creamery Association’s commitment to maximizing the potential of its members’ dairy farms would mean little were it not for its equal commitment to their communities and the environment. Indeed, corporate America, for the most part, has a long way to go before it will ever match the type of commitment to community practiced for so long by cooperatives such as Tillamook. These member-owned businesses have long realized that their coops are only as strong as the local communities in which their members live and work.

The cornerstone of Tillamook’s commitment to the community is the cooperative’s “no-net-loss of farmland” policy.

“This is a rural county and we are committed to sustaining it,” says Tillamook CEO Harold Strunk. “We also believe in the stewardship of the natural resources in our community, so we partner with our local Soil and Water Conservation District, the Watershed Council and the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership to improve water quality and salmon habitat and to mitigate flooding. We do this through leadership opportunities and funding.”

For the past 20 years, the co-op board has funded an environmental stewardship program that finances individual projects to protect the environment. This April, the State Land Board presented a streamside project award to TCCA, the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership and four other partners for a joint project to remove the Coal Creek Dam, owned by TCCA, and to restore more than two miles of stream habitat.

“We are also committed to supporting the youth in our community,” says Strunk. “One of our more exciting partnerships involves inviting students to use our wetlands property as an outdoor classroom to study and prepare for a career in the science and environmental field. We also offer five, $2,000 “Excellence in Leadership” scholarships to students in Tillamook and Morrow counties each year to encourage higher education.

TCCA is the largest employer in Tillamook County and, counting the 110 independent family-owned dairies that dot the countryside, it has a large impact on the local economy and its ability to thrive.

“You can also look at our impact from the standpoint that the city of Tillamook is able to host a hospital and other basic services for its citizen because of our employee base,” Strunk says. “The farms support the veterinarians and the equipment dealers and employ workers as well. We are also large contributors to the nonprofits in the county,” he adds, noting that the co-op has a long-standing relationship with the local food bank and its member dairy farmers and employees are among the largest contributors to the United Way.

“It is also important to factor in the impact of tourism on the local economy,” Strunk says. “The Tillamook Cheese Factory Visitors Center draws approximately 1 million visitors to the Visitors Center annually. This impacts local restaurants, hotels and other recreational activities in the area.”

100-Year Milestones

1909 Ten cheese factory operators form Tillamook County Creamery
Association (TCCA) cooperative to control product quality.
1911 TCCA starts cow testing to ensure use of clean, healthy cows, remove
poor quality ones and help with feed rations and breeding.
1917 TCCA hires ad agency and starts campaign in Los Angeles, San Francisco
and Portland. Credited as first community to advertise cheese under a
1921 The Tillamook brand is on all cheese and trademarked.
1946 TCCA starts making rindless cheese.
1947 TCCA starts bottled milk production.
1949 Four TCCA factories consolidate and build new central plant.
1966 TCCA redesigns packaging for better recognizability.
1968 Seven cheese factories consolidate and move operations to Tillamook
central plant. This brings all formerly independent county plants into
1972 TCCA starts a Premium Ice Cream line.
1978 TCCA starts using refrigerated trucks to haul products to market.
1979 Tillamook opens Visitors Center.
1990 TCCA starts new automated “Cheddarmaster” cheddaring system.
1994 TCCA expands Visitors Center to accommodate more than 900,000 annual
tourists. Starts low-fat yogurt line.
1998 TCCA starts fat-free yogurt line.
1999 Co-op launches Web site.
2001 Co-op expands facilities and doubles cheesemaking capacity.
2005 Co-op starts another expansion to increase output by 50 percent.
Launches yogurt smoothie and vintage, 100-day-aged white medium
cheddar products.
2006 TCCA completes expansion project. The new vintage white cheddar takes
top honors at National Milk Producers Federation cheese contest.
2007 TCCA introduces three new flavored cheddars. Names Harold Strunk as
2008 TCCA launches two more flavored cheeses.
2009 TCCA celebrates 100 years as a farmer-owned co-op.

A conversation with Tillamook
President/CEO Harold Strunk

July/August Table of Contents