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State of the Industry

Washington, Oregon improve industries with group efforts

Editor’s note: As part of our “State of the Industry” series we take 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 — Oregon and Washington.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — People living west of the Cascade mountains might complain about too much rain, while those living to the east might find it too desert-like. But according to many in the dairy industry, the Pacific Northwest is like heaven for cows.

“There’s a saying in Washington, ‘God made Washington for cows,’” says Blair Thompson, director of consumer communications, Washington Dairy Products Commission. “We’re blessed with a very temperate climate, where cows perform well. There is very rich volcanic soil from our five active volcanos, where we grow some of the best alfalfa in the world. This leads to happy cows.”

The comfortable climate for dairy cows is one reason Washington ranks No. 2 in the nation for milk production per cow, Thompson says, with an average of 23,239 pounds of milk produced per cow in 2007. Rain and good pasture land is plentiful in Western Washington, home to 67 percent of the state’s dairy farms, and a more spacious, less populated desert climate in Eastern Washington accommodates alfalfa fields and larger dairies.

Oregon’s land and climate are similar to those of Washington, also making it ideal for milk production.

“We’ve adopted the word ‘terroir,’ meaning a ‘sense of place’ in food circles,” says Pete Kent, executive director, Oregon Dairy Products Commission. “We have a fairly gentle climate and deep volcanic soils.”

Kent says this also helps contribute to the quality of Oregon’s milk.

“That sense of place translates into a great place to raise cows and comes out in the quality of our milk,” he says, adding that it shows in annual USDA milk quality ratings. “We consistently are ranked in the top five for milk quality, and we are third right now nationwide.”

Oregon has seen growth in organic dairy farms, Kent says, though the growth may have slowed recently due to price and feed constraints. Oregon currently has approximately 55 organic dairy producers.

“Oregon and Washington are a little ahead of other regions in the percentage and ratio of organic farms,” Kent says. “I think it’s just a reflection of the Northwest culture and populations. Especially in the Portland and Seattle areas, people are very much interested in the fresh, local and sustainable aspects of food.”

Washington has 36 certified organic dairy farms, and Seattle represents the nation’s second largest percentage of organic milk sales at 10.4 percent, compared to the national average of 3.7 percent. Thompson says a couple of years ago there was a surge of interest from a number of farms in Washington that were interested in organic production, though that interest since has slowed.

• A cooperative effort

Approximately 80 percent of the milk produced by Washington’s 460 farms is sent to the Seattle-based Northwest Dairy Association cooperative and its processing and marketing arm, Darigold Inc.

“Darigold enjoys a strong regional market position and considers the Pacific Northwest’s climate and geographic location very conducive to business,” says Steve Rowe, senior vice president, Darigold.

Oregon’s approximately 300 grade A dairy farms send their milk to Darigold, Tillamook County Creamery Association, Farmers Cooperative Creamery and other smaller processors.

While most of Washington’s dairy is processed into fluid milk, the state also has a substantial cheese industry, thanks in part to Darigold’s cheese and whey plant in Sunnyside, Wash., which takes in more than 4.5 million pounds of raw milk each day.

“Cheese is very big in Washington, but we don’t have a national reputation,” Thompson says. “People might not know it because a lot of it gets sold under a plethora of different names.”

Tillamook, the largest cheese producer in Oregon, takes in 1.8 million pounds of milk and makes approximately 170,000 pounds of cheese a day at its plant in Tillamook, Ore. The cooperative’s other plant in Boardman, Ore., manufactures approximately 225,000 pounds of Tillamook cheese per day. The cooperative’s 110 farmer owners are located mostly in Tillamook County.

Because of the damp climate in Western Oregon, most of Tillamook’s cooperative members are able to practice pasture grazing. And because the cooperative’s focus is cheese, Tillamook also requires a milk quality standard from its members that is higher than the industry norm, according to Heidi Luquette, corporate communications manager, Tillamook.

“The quality of the milk you start with can impact the quality and taste of the cheese, particularly when you are aging Cheddars,” Luquette says. “As Cheddars naturally age and the bacteria goes through that process, the higher quality the milk, the less opportunity there is for inconsistencies or off flavors.”

Tillamook recently introduced a special edition vintage white extra sharp Cheddar, aged 3 years, to celebrate its 100th anniversary as a cooperative this year. It also is hosting community celebrations this summer in Tillamook and Portland.

“It is a milestone for us. Not a lot of cooperatives reach 100 years,” Luquette says. “We are proud of our employees and members that they have been able to be this successful.”

• Artisan collaboration

Smaller artisan cheesemakers in Oregon and Washington also are celebrating success and recent growth.

“Oregon has seen artisan growth, first in the wineries that started 15-20 years ago and are now very solid. It’s the same with microbreweries, which have become a very strong presence now,” Kent says. “We see cheese as the next type of wave happening in terms of the artisan movement.”

The Oregon Cheese Guild, founded in 2006, and the Washington State Cheesemakers Association, founded in 2005, have helped a growing number of small cheesemakers in the Northwest to learn techniques, enter contests and receive national exposure that would have been difficult to achieve alone.
These statewide industry organizations include small, farmstead cheesemakers, as well as larger companies like Tillamook.

“We offer support to help Oregon artisan cheesemakers,” Luquette says of Tillamook’s involvement in the Oregon Cheese guild. “We help give Oregon cheesemakers more of a national focus.”

Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore., gained international exposure as the first U.S. exporter of raw milk cheeses to Europe when it began exporting its Blue cheese line to stores in London in 2007. Rogue Creamery also works to give national exposure to smaller cheesemakers in Oregon through the cheese guild.

“It gives us a collaborative effort to network and benefit in participating in economies of scale,” says Francis Plowman, treasurer and spokesperson for the Oregon Cheese Guild and director of marketing for Rogue Creamery.

The guild has coordinated joint shipment of its members’ cheeses to contests as well as to specialty cheese shops across the country, presenting Oregon cheeses as a unified group.

“We have grown organically each year a little bit more,” Plowman says. “There is a strength in numbers aspect to this. The collaboration is important.”

The Oregon Cheese Guild also hosts workshops and events throughout the year, and it is hosting activities at the upcoming 5th annual Oregon Cheesemakers Festival in March.

Washington’s artisan cheesemakers also have benefited from the state’s prolific wineries. The Washington State Cheesemakers Association originally was formed in 2005 to provide a format for cheesemakers to participate as a group with winemakers at larger events.

“In Washington there is a huge wine region, but there was not enough volume of cheese where we could stand alone with winemakers,” says Julie Steil, president of the Washington State Cheesemakers Association and owner of River Valley Cheese, Fall City, Wash. “Now there are so many cheesemakers, 30 in our area now, that we are being compared to Vermont.”

The artisan cheese movement really took off during the summer of 2006, Steil says, when many of the cheesemakers were licensed and started growing their herds. The region is home to many goat farmstead cheesemakers as well as raw milk cheesemakers.

Tomme, an aged, lowfat French-style cheese, is a popular offering among Washington’s artisan cheesemakers, Steil says, because the climate is ideal for aging cheese.

“We typically have a higher humidity factor and winters are not severe at all, so we can do a lot of natural aging,” Steil says. “Summers are cooler, which also is really nice for aging cheese.”

The Washington Cheesemakers Association advertises classes hosted by member cheesemakers, and its members will be featured in a new book by Tammy Parr of the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project. The book will be published in April and is titled Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest. The group also is looking forward to 2010, when Seattle will host the annual convention of the American Cheese Society.

• Foundations for the future

Industry representatives from both Oregon and Washington predict more future growth, both in artisan and general dairy industry sectors.

“For cheesemakers, with the kind of foundation we’re building through Oregon State University, the cheese guild and the Department of Agriculture, there’s a growth in that area and a lot of support,” Kent says. “Also, we’re well positioned for export potential, and would like to explore that as a commission.”

Blair says Washington, like many states, is looking at fewer farms, but he predicts the remaining farms will become more efficient and production will expand on the eastern side of the state. He also sees diversification as a major trend of the future.

“The industry will continue to diversify to meet the continued diverse consumer demand,” Blair says.

“My sense is that Washington will continue to be home to a dairy industry,” he adds. “There just are too many advantages that make dairying a good thing to do in Washington.”

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