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Pacific Northwest supports local dairy, global ambitions

Editor’s note: In our series, “From Cow to Curd: A Look Across the Nation,” Cheese Market News takes a look at the cheese and dairy industry across the United States. Each month we examine a different state or region, looking at key facts and evaluating areas of growth, challenges and recent innovations. This month we are pleased to introduce our latest states — Washington and Oregon.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — The temperate climate, natural resources and progressive food culture of the Pacific Northwest provide an ideal environment for the region’s dairy farmers and cheese crafters. And while there is a diverse range of farms and businesses — from small farmstead dairies to major regional cooperatives and operations with thousands of cows — industry members of all sizes form a tight-knit and supportive community.

“We’re not a large dairy state really, more like a large community of dairying,” says Pete Kent, executive director of the checkoff-funded Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council. “There’s a spirit of everyone knows everyone else, whether large or small, organic or not.”

There are roughly 210 dairy farms in Oregon, located primarily on the North Coast around Tillamook and mid-Willamette Valley in the Salem area, Kent says. Farms range from 20 cows to a 30,000-cow dairy. He adds that there are a number of advantages for dairy farms in Oregon.

“There is a long heritage of dairy farming, some five or six generations,” Kent says.

Oregon’s northern neighbor, Washington, is home to approximately 350 dairy farms averaging nearly 750 cows. Larger dairies can be found in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin regions, while other pockets of farms are located in northwest Washington near the Canadian border, along the I-5 corridor in western Washington and a few north of Spokane, according to Kimmi Devaney, director of community relations for Washington’s checkoff organization, Dairy Farmers of Washington.

“Compared to other states, Washington has a mild climate that cows love. Winters in western Washington tend to be in the 40s and 50s with rain. Summers are in the 70s and 80s,” Devaney says.

In addition to Dairy Farmers of Washington and their cooperatives, dairy farmers also have support from industry organizations such as the Washington State Dairy Federation for policy and legislative issues, Save Family Farming, the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Washington State University, Devaney adds.

“Collaboration is strong in Washington,” she says. “With one primary milk marketing cooperative (Northwest Dairy Association/Darigold), we are all serving the same people, and as our stakeholders, we want dairy farmers to receive the greatest value from our collective strengths.”

• Global reach

Tillamook is the largest cooperative and cheese producer in Oregon, with about 80 farmer family owners. Darigold and Organic Valley also have plants in Oregon to process their members’ milk.

Nearly 95% of dairy farms in Washington are members of Seattle-based Northwest Dairy Association cooperative, and its marketing arm Darigold is the main processor in the state. About 40 percent of Washington’s dairy is exported, Devaney says.

Smaller processors in the Northwest also have worked together to enter the export market. An Oregon dairy export consortium began in 2012 to help develop export opportunities for small and medium sized cheese companies. It has since expanded into a regional program that includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. Kent says about six to eight cheesemakers in these states are engaged in exporting through the program, which currently is focused on Asian markets and operates with support from a USDA grant and the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“Our goal is to introduce new companies to export and get a foothold for success,” Kent says, noting that the program offers one-on-one mentoring, as well as help with consolidated shipping and market development.

• Local support

Both Washington and Oregon have active artisan cheese guilds and local cheesemakers that have gained regional, national and global success.

In October, Rogue Creamery from Central Point, Oregon, became the first U.S. cheesemaker to win the top prize at the World Cheese Awards with its Rogue River Blue. In 2020, Portland, Oregon, will host the American Cheese Society annual conference and cheese competition.

“Most of our makers are growing — still serving the local markets through farmers market sales and local distribution while looking to regional and national food markets to expand sales,” says Katie Bray, executive director, Oregon Cheese Guild.

The Oregon Cheese Guild hosts cheese festivals in March and October, and works with Oregon retailers and cheesemakers on other events throughout the year, including Oregon Cheese Month in September and a Cheesemaker Education Day conference in January.

“My favorite thing about working with Oregon’s cheese producers is the spirit of collaboration among them,” Bray says. “Because of the gorgeous pasturing conditions and ethos of sustainability we have in Oregon, our producers are able to produce world-class cheeses in a variety of styles spanning the breadth of European to South American to Mexican to original American recipes that are unique to our own producers. They are collaborators first, understanding the belief that the rising tide lifts all boats. Many newer cheesemakers and owners of local creameries started their careers at more established companies, often making their first cheeses in other facilities, then going on to expand their own operations.”

• Progressive tastes

Washington’s cheese industry has grown from less than 10 registered cheesemakers in 2015 to more than 50 today, according to the Washington State Cheesemakers Association.

Matt Day, cofounder of Mt. Townsend Creamery, Port Townsend, Washington, says his company received strong reception from the local community since it started 15 years ago. Its cheeses now are distributed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Northern California, as well as occasionally in New York.

“Particularly western Washington and Oregon have a real big local foods culture. It’s a real lush area for agriculture and food production. A lot of progressive, forward-thinking folks get excited about that,” Day says.

Mt. Townsend Creamery is on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula by Puget Sound. Day says the coastal temperate climate is similar to that of Normandy and Western France, which serves as inspiration for its soft ripened cheeses that are aged in a high humidity environment.

Further south in the foothills of Mt. Adams, Cascadia Creamery, Trout Lake, Washington, uses unique local resources to craft its raw milk cheeses that are aged in a natural lava flow cave. Milk for the cheese comes from a herd less than a mile away, pastured on local native grasses and natural spring water.

“In Trout Lake, we have very innovative farmers,” says Marci Shuman, who owns Cascadia Creamery with her husband John. She adds that the farmer that provides their milk was one of the early adopters of the organic movement and transitioned to A2 genetics eight years ago, before it was on the radar for consumers.

With their operation, the Shumans have revived a history of cheesemaking and cave aging in the Trout Lake area, which was settled in the 1880s by Swedish dairy farmers and used in the World War II era to domestically produce and age Roquefort-type cheese in its natural caves, which have conditions similar to those used for Roquefort production in France.

“It put cheesemaking on the map here in the ’40s,” Shuman says.

The Shumans note that people in the Pacific Northwest tend to be a step ahead in being aware of what they are eating and concerned about quality, local production.

“The consumer base is very progressive ­­— not only the buyers but also the retailers, getting behind and supporting local producers,” Shuman says. “I feel like if it was a wave, we were on the early side of it. We’re really fortunate to have a supportive atmosphere here in the Pacific Northwest.”

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