There’s a familiar stop along Highway 101 in Oregon as you head down the coast, perhaps after a week in Astoria or Cannon Beach before turning east toward Portland — it’s the Tillamook County Creamery Association visitors center and retail store. Situated next to Tillamook’s flagship manufacturing facility, what was once a humble stop for great ice cream and perhaps a chance to load up on cheese has turned into a thriving restaurant and retail business.
While COVID-19 has changed some rules of operation across the company, this cooperative has thrived — due in part to the fact that most of its production goes to grocery retail stores, not restaurants. The pandemic did close the visitors center for a time, but it has reopened, and the restaurant is now open for outdoor dining only. “We’re really happy to say that we decided [COVID-19] would not impact employees,” says Paul Snyder, executive vice president, stewardship, TCCA. “As people pantry-stock cheese and stress-eat ice cream, we’ve done well.”
Employees who worked in the visitors center, which did have to close for a time, were repurposed to manufacturing roles or paid to do volunteer work. And the cooperative did keep its ice cream window open, with appropriate social distancing rules. The store was essentially open for the local community.
And community may be the operative word for this cooperative that is expanding its product lines to more regions across the country. With plants in Tillamook and Boardman, Ore., employees are hard at work making product. And expansion is moving to contract manufacturing, too. So how does a cooperative expand business yet maintain quality, and preserve its brand?
DRIVING STEWARDSHIP: Paul Snyder has the responsibility for stewardship across the Tillamook County Creamery Association. The group has identified six key areas for focus and is sharing in-depth information in its stewardship report. (Photo courtesy of Tillamook)
A key to that is to create a strategy that is focused on key value areas, which Snyder says include six stewardship commitments: thriving farms, healthful cows, inspired consumers, enduring ecosystems, fulfilled employees and enriched communities.
That focus on retail over restaurants has been a help during the pandemic. “Over 90% of our product goes to grocery stores, and we felt grateful to be in a position to help our community,” Snyder says.
That help includes a $4 million COVID-19 response fund that Snyder says cooperative management set up because “we were doing well, and we can be there for the community.”
Working with stakeholders
Those six stewardship commitments are more than a lip-service public relations campaign for the cooperative. Snyder, who came from the hotel industry, is passionate as he talks with Western Farmer-Stockman about the business. “We have so much potential in front of us; we’re the kind of company that with humility, we can say we give ourselves a pat on the back, but also a kick in the pants to make meaningful changes,” Snyder says. “We want to deliver on the commitment to our six stewardship pillars. You’ve got to move the goalposts on yourself, or it is easy to become complacent.”
To make that happen, the cooperative has published its second annual stewardship report. The new 2019 report is a detailed look at how the company is performing against its six identified areas of stewardship commitments. And Snyder, who is a recent newcomer to agriculture, notes that the time frames are different here, versus that hotel industry work. "The average life span for a hotel property is seven years. That’s the time horizon you think on,” he says. “I’m working here with farmer-owners who have been on their land for generations. There’s a longer runway to discuss return on investment for ideas.”
That’s important when dealing with issues like reducing greenhouse gas emissions or working toward greater traceability from cow to refrigerator case.
Snyder admits he doesn’t own cows, he works for people who do; and when there are new ideas, like greenhouse gas emissions, the first step is the conversation with those producers. “We work with farmer-owners to help them understand why a specific approach or practice may be a good idea,” he says. “I have to explain to them why they would want to do a specific practice. With sustainability strategy, or programs, there’s never just one benefit — and that’s the great thing.”
For example, a zero-emission strategy, which is a long-term goal, does involve capturing methane to turn it into compressed natural gas for use in a variety of ways, including as a farm power source.
For the cooperative, methane digesters are already being deployed in the supply chain. Some of their farmer-owners send manure to two digesters in Tillamook County, which helps create power for local businesses and homes. Snyder says there are pilot programs underway to convert the Tillamook truck fleet to compressed natural gas use. “What we’d like to do is create a closed loop, from cow poop to running the trucks,” he says.
Transparency in progress
The 2019 Stewardship Report contains a section on progress, denoted by red, yellow and green “lights,” in a chart showing goals and how the cooperative is doing. Snyder harks back to that long-term thinking for those engaged groups. And acknowledges there’s always more work to do.
There are some red “lights” on that report, showing where the cooperative can do better. “We made a commitment to a stewardship charter, and we’re showing how we’re doing,” Snyder says. “It’s no good to make a commitment if you’re not going to call the balls and strikes of how we’re doing. You can’t just sit there and say, ‘We’ll be a good company, trust us on that’ and not show results either way.”
Snyder says he wants the reader of the report to see that the cooperative and its members believe in stewardship, and that “We mean to do something about our beliefs. This is not just window dressing, and we mean it.”
You can read TCCA’s new 2019 Stewardship Report online.