Public Interest Group Calls for Boycott of Tillamook Products

The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a public interest and environmental advocacy organization, called on Wednesday (9/25) for a consumer boycott of Tillamook dairy products "until the dairy giant commits to sourcing the milk in its products from farms which use the sustainable, humane practices that the company's advertising suggests."

Cows in a typical industrial dairy.

This follows on the heels of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of four Oregon consumers alleging that Tillamook's advertising misleads the public into believing its milk comes from cows munching on coastal pastures, when in truth the vast majority of the milk used in its famous cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter comes from cows fed on grain and living on concrete and dirt feedlots in industrial conditions in Eastern Oregon.

Referring to Tillamook's advertising as "greenwashing," the CFS press release quotes senior attorney Amy van Saun as saying that "Big Food companies like Tillamook are exploiting consumer preference for small, local, and sustainable [food] by pretending that their practices support health, the environment, and a local living economy, when the reality is that the milk they're buying is dirty. Community food system advocates have fought too hard to protect the livelihoods of small family farmers, animals and our planet to see companies greenwashing their unsustainable products, especially a brand so beloved by Oregonians."

One of the ads in Tillamook's campaign.

The lawsuit accuses Tillamook, which projects $1 billion in sales in 2020, of violating multiple Oregon consumer protection laws. These laws state that, essentially, "consumers are not required to spend hours doing online research in order to correct deception that is being put forth by a marketer’s pervasive marketing campaign, ” according to an article quoting Kelsey Eberly, a lawyer with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDS), which filed the class action lawsuit.

CFS has mounted an online petition titled "Be the Truth Tillamook: Say Goodbye to Mega-Dairies!" urging loyal consumers to tell Tillamook that "we have long believed your advertising about the source of your milk: family farms in Tillamook county, raising cows humanely on pasture, letting them roam free on rolling green hills."

Tillamook has always touted its small family farmers.

The petition goes on to say "Tillamook claims to be the answer to Big Food and 'Dairy Done Right,' but in reality, the majority of the milk that goes into Tillamook dairy products, including the signature cheddar cheeses, comes from the nation’s largest industrial confinement mega-dairy in Eastern Oregon—quintessential 'Big Food.'" CFS is launching a concurrent social media campaign using the hashtags #BeTheTruthTillamook and #DumpDirtyDairy.

As of the time of this posting, the Tillamook County Creamery Association, the co-op behind the Tillamook brand, has not issued a comment on the boycott, nor has Threemile Canyon Farms, the mega-dairy that provides the bulk of its milk. Easterday Farms, a new 30,000-cow mega-dairy—it bought the failed Lost Valley Farm in Boardman—has applied for a permit to supply milk but is not yet in operation.


For more information on mega-dairies in Oregon, read my article, Big Milk Brings Big Issues for Local Communities as well as my post on Tillamook's connection to these factory farms, Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese. Read my full reporting on Threemile Canyon, Lost Valley and Easterday mega-dairies.

Tillamook's Milk Comes from Cows on Concrete, Not Pasture, Lawsuit Claims

A group of consumers has filed suit against the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) claiming its advertising misleads the public into believing its milk comes from cows munching on coastal pastures, when in truth most of the milk used in its famous cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter comes from cows fed on grain, living on concrete and dirt feedlots in factory farms in Eastern Oregon.

Photo used in Tillamook's promotional materials.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a legal advocacy organization for animals that filed the suit on behalf of the Oregon consumers, the TCCA's "heavily advertised 'co-op' of small family farms in Tillamook County represent just a tiny proportion of the company’s production. In reality, Tillamook sources up to 80 percent of its milk from the largest dairy feedlot in the United States. Located in the desert of eastern Oregon, the facility that provides the majority of Tillamook’s milk keeps 32,000 dairy cows (and more than 70,000 cows total) in inhumane, industrialized conditions. Tillamook sells dairy products nationwide under the 'Tillamook' brand name, and is poised to do over $1 billion in sales in 2020."

Part of Tillamook's "Dairy Done Right' campaign.

The TCCA's advertising encourages shoppers to "Say Goodbye to Big Food," depicting cows grazing on pristine coastal grass under sunny blue skies, when in reality, the lawsuit claims, its industrial practices are the epitome of "Big Food." The lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, says that "consumers increasingly seek out and are willing to pay more for products that they perceive as being locally and ethically sourced—better for the environment [and] more humane. Tillamook has projected such ethical sourcing as its company ethos, deliberately crafting its marketing messages to attract these consumers, who believe they are getting such responsibly sourced products when they buy Tillamook cheese and ice cream. As the company says, 'Tillamook cheddar cheese is made with four ingredients, patience, and old-fashioned farmer values in Tillamook, Oregon."

Threemile Canyon Farms is so large it can be seen from space.

The industrial factory farm where Tillamook sources its milk, Threemile Canyon Farms, covers 93,000 acres in Boardman, Oregon, and is "so large it's visible from space" according to the lawsuit. Unlike the rich coastal pastures shown in the advertising, Boardman is a hot, dry climate classified as steppe or semi-arid, the lawsuit reads, describing the area as “flat, arid and often swelteringly hot—nothing like Tillamook County." (Read more about the problems caused by mega-dairies in my story, Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities.)

Cow stands in its own manure at now-shuttered Lost Valley Farm.

Until recently Tillamook also bought milk from Lost Valley Farm, another Boardman-area mega-dairy permitted for up to 30,000 cows that racked up more than 200 environmental violations in its first year-and-a-half of operation and has since been shut down and sold. (Read my coverage here.) "Industrial mega-dairies are also major polluters, generating huge quantities of waste that is disposed of⁠—virtually untreated⁠—on land where it can contaminate rivers, streams, and groundwater and harm wildlife.

Manure runs into open lagoons at Threemile Canyon Farms.

"The noxious air emissions these facilities produce can threaten public health, contribute to climate change, and decrease visibility in special places like the Columbia Gorge," according to a statement from a coalition of seven consumer, environmental and small farm advocates that has been working to establish more stringent regulations of these industrial facilities. [Oregon has extremely lax regulatory oversight of these factory farms.] Tillamook’s increasing reliance on industrial mega-dairies to ramp up production further contributes to overproduction, which lowers prices for family farmers and contributes to Oregon’s devastating decline in family dairies."

Exhibits at Tillamook depict cows on pasture.

Tillamook's response, typical of corporations under fire, attacks the credibility of the plaintiffs rather than addressing the issues raised, claiming the ALDF "is anti-dairy and actively advocates for people to cut all dairy products from their diets." It further stated that "Tillamook takes great pride in being a farmer-owned and farmer-led co-op, and we only work with business partners that share our values and live up to our extremely high standards."

The lawsuit, on the other hand, states that Tillamook intentionally contributes to confusion "as to the source of its dairy products by extensive advertising that the products are sourced from humane, pasture-based farms producing 'real food.' Consumers who believe they are buying products from small, high-welfare, pasture-based dairies in Tillamook County are instead unwittingly purchasing cheese, butter, ice cream, and yogurt made from milk from the largest industrial dairy in the country—that confines tens of thousands of cows on concrete in the desert of Eastern Oregon." It seeks "to hold Tillamook accountable for its uniform and pervasive claims falsely representing the company's products as coming exclusively from small-scale, pasture-based farms in Tillamook County that provide individualized care for cows, when this could not be further from the truth."


For more information on mega-dairies in Oregon, read my article, Big Milk Brings Big Issues for Local Communities as well as my post on Tillamook's connection to these factory farms, Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese. You can also read my full reporting on Threemile Canyon and Lost Valley mega-dairies.

Top photo of cows in an industrial CAFO courtesy Center for Food Safety.

An Oregon Dairyman Reclaims the Pasture

Meet Jon Bansen, a pasture-based dairyman in Oregon's Willamette Valley, in this profile I wrote for Civil Eats' Farmer of the Month series.

Fourth-generation farmer Jon Bansen
translates complex grazing production systems
into common-sense farm wisdom.

In the U.S., the dairy industry is a tough business for organic and conventional producers alike, with plunging prices and changing consumer demand leading to a spate of farm shutdowns and even farmer suicides. And in Oregon, where dairy is big business—accounting for 10 percent of the state’s agriculture income in 2016—the story is much the same.

But Jon Bansen, who has farmed since 1991 at Double J Jerseys, an organic dairy farm in Monmouth, Oregon, has throughout his career bucked conventional wisdom and demonstrated the promise of his practices. Now he’s convincing others to follow suit.

Bansen and his wife Juli bought their farm in 1991 and named it Double J Jerseys, then earned organic certification in 2000. In 2017, he switched to full-time grass feed for his herd of 200 cows and 150 young female cows, called heifers. He convinced his brother Bob, who owns a dairy in Yamhill, to convert to organic. His brother Pete followed suit soon after. (“He’s a slow learner, that’s all I can say,” Bansen joked.)

He’s someone who prefers to lead by example, which has earned him the respect of a broad range of the region’s farmers and ranchers, as well as its agricultural agencies and nonprofits.

“Jon is an articulate spokesperson for organic dairy in Oregon and beyond,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, an organic certifying organization. “His passion for organic dairy and pasture-based systems is contagious, and he does a great job of translating complex grazing production systems into common-sense farmer wisdom. His personal experience … is a compelling case for other dairy farmers to consider.”

George Siemon, one of the founders of Organic Valley, the dairy co-operative for which Bansen produces 100 percent grass-fed milk under Organic Valley’s “Grassmilk” brand, believes the switch to 100 percent grass is a direction that Bansen has been moving in all along.

“He’s just refined and refined and refined his organic methods,” said Siemon, admitting that Bansen is one of his favorite farmers. “He’s transformed his whole farm. It’s a great case when the marketplace is rewarding him for getting better and better at what he does and what he likes to do.”

Deep Roots in Dairy Farming

Dairy farming is baked into Bansen’s DNA, with roots tracing all the way back to his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Denmark in the late 1800s, settling in a community of Danes in Northern California. His grandfather followed in the early 1900s, hiring out his milking skills to other farmers until he saved enough to buy his own small farm near the bucolic coastal town of Ferndale in Humboldt County.

Bansen was about 10 years old when his father and their family left the home farm to strike out on their own in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. They bought land in the tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Yamhill, about an hour southwest of Portland.

A typical farm kid, Bansen and his seven siblings were all expected to help with the chores. “You fed calves before you went to school, and you came home and dinked around the house eating for awhile until you heard Dad’s voice beller at you that it was time to get back to work,” Bansen recalled. “I was a little envious of kids that lived in town and got to ride their bikes on pavement. That sounded pretty sexy to me.”

After studying biology in college in Nebraska and getting married soon after graduating, Bansen and his wife worked on his dad’s Yamhill farm for five years and then began talking about getting a place of their own. They found property not far away outside the sleepy town of Monmouth. It had the nutritionally rich, green pastures Bansen knew were ideal for dairy cows, fed by the coastal mists that drift over the Coast Range from the nearby Pacific Ocean.

One day, a few years after they’d started Double J Jerseys, a man knocked on their door. He said he was from a small organic dairy co-op in Wisconsin that was looking to expand nationally. He wondered if Double J would be interested in transitioning to organic production, mentioning that the co-op could guarantee a stable price for their milk.

It turned out that the stranger was Siemon, a self-described “long-haired hippie” who’d heard about Bansen through word of mouth. “He was reasonably skeptical,” recalls Siemon. “He wanted to make sure it was a valid market before he committed, because it’s such a big commitment to go all the way with organic dairy.”

For his part, Bansen worried that there wasn’t an established agricultural infrastructure to support the transition, not to mention the maintenance of an organic farm. “I was worried about finding enough organic grain,” he said.

On the other hand, however, the young couple needed the money an organic certification might bring. “We had $30,000 to our name and we were more than half a million dollars in debt” from borrowing to start the farm, Bansen said.

After much research and soul-searching, they decided to accept Siemon’s offer and started the transition process. It helped that his cousin Dan had transitioned one of his farms to organic not long before and that generations of his family before him had run pasture-based dairies.

“My grandfather, he was an organic dairy farmer, he just didn’t know what it was called,” Bansen said. “There were no antibiotics, no hormones, no pesticides. You fed your cows in the fields.”

The Organic Learning Curve

During the Bansens’ first organic years, they had to figure out ways to eliminate antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides—all of which Bansen views as “crutches” to deal with management issues.

To prevent coccidiosis, a condition baby cows develop when they don’t receive enough milk and are forced to live in overcrowded conditions, for example, Bansen fed his calves plenty of milk and made sure they had enough space.

To prevent cows from contracting mastitis, an infection of the mammary system, he changed the farm’s milking methods.

Another learning curve had to do with figuring out the balance of grain to forage (i.e., edible plants). Originally Bansen fed each of his cows 20 pounds of grain per day, but after switching to organic sources of grain, he was able to reduce that to four or five pounds a day. This switch cut down grain and transportation costs dramatically.

He also had to learn to manage the plants in the fields in order to produce the healthiest grazing material possible. Since the transition to organic, Double J has grown to nearly 600 acres, a combination of pastures for the milking cows, fields for growing the grass and forage he stores for winter, when it’s too cold and wet to keep the animals outdoors.

“It’s not a machine; it’s a constant dance between what you’re planting and growing and the weather patterns and how the cows are reacting to it,” said Bansen. “There’s science involved in it, but it’s more of an art form.”

Read the rest of the article and find out why Bansen made the decision to transition to a grass diet for his cows, and why he's "sick of farmers bitching about the price of milk and [then] going down to Walmart to buy groceries and taking their kids out to McDonald’s. You have no right to bitch about what’s going on in your marketplace if you’re not supporting that same marketplace."

Cows Living in Filth at Mega-Dairy While State Allows It to Continue Supplying Milk

This post summarizes media coverage involving incidents at Lost Valley Farm, one of two mega-dairies in the Boardman area that supply milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) for its dairy products, including Tillamook cheese. Source materials used are listed at the bottom of the post.

Even before it opened, the Boardman-area mega-dairy known as Lost Valley Farm, owned by Greg te Velde of Tipton, California, was skirting state regulations by starting construction of the dairy without  having the proper permits in hand.

An article in the Salem Statesman Journal reported that "Oregon regulators approved te Velde’s Lost Valley Farm in March [2017], despite formal objections from a dozen state and national health and environment organizations that raised concerns about air and water pollution, water use and health impacts on nearby communities."

According to an article in the Capital Press, in its first year of operation alone, it:

  • Was sued by Daritech, a dairy equipment manufacturer, in federal court for allegedly failing to pay in a timely fashion more than $340,000 for the installation of equipment.
  • Was sued by IRZ Consulting for not fully paying for labor, equipment, materials and other services related to the construction and improvement of real estate.
  • Was sued by Laser Land Leveling, Inc., which sought to recover $1.4 million for labor, materials and other services. (The suit was settled out of court.)
  • Did not report as required on wastewater from the dairy that had overflowed into a pit not authorized for storage.
  • Did not maintain adequate lagoon storage capacity to deal with runoff in case of a storm.
  • Did not report as required that  liquid and solid manure had discharged from a tank, flowing into areas unauthorized for waste storage.
  • Was issued three notices of non-compliance with its CAFO permit between late June and late November of [2017], which required corrective actions.

Then the Statesman-Journal reported that te Velde had been convicted in July of 2017 of "careless driving contributing to an accident" after he hit an Oregon Department of Transportation truck on Interstate 84 in Hood River County and was fined $450. The same article reported that te Velde was arrested in August in a Tri-Counties, Washington, prostitution sting on charges of patronizing a prostitute and possessing methamphetamine. He was booked into the Benton County jail and subsequently released on bail.

At the time of his arrest in the prostitution sting, the same article reports, the Tillamook creamery, which processes the milk from Lost Valley and another mega-dairy in Boardman for most of its dairy products, issued a statement saying "we were extremely disappointed to learn of these allegations, and they very clearly go against the values and behaviors we hold true at the Tillamook Creamery Association." The article quotes Tillamook as stating that "the staff that we’ve worked closely with at Lost Valley are hard-working and dedicated to supplying high-quality milk, and we recognize that the alleged personal actions of one individual should not tarnish the professional reputation of everyone involved in the operation. That said, we expect the Lost Valley Farm organization to respond swiftly, responsibly and with a high degree of accountability in regards to this situation."

Lost Valley's problems didn't end there.

In February of 2018, the Capital Press reported that the State of Oregon had slapped Lost Valley with a $10,640 fine for allegedly discharging waste in violation of permit conditions, an amount that many critics called a slap on the wrist considering the number of violations found and the four citations the facility had been issued. Then in late February, the state decided to sue the mega-dairy for "repeatedly endangered nearby drinking water by violating environmental laws" and saying it should be shut down immediately, according to an article in the Statesman-Journal.

The Oregonian reported that "in the state’s lawsuit, inspectors said that te Velde and [Lost Valley manager] Love stored waste and wastewater in areas not permitted for it; never completed building all the required lagoons and other facilities to store it; the existing facilities regularly overflowed when it rained; they removed parts from a storage tank after agreeing not to; and the container that held dead animal bodies leaked."

Love and te Velde issued a dramatic written response to the state's lawsuit, which the Statesman-Journal reported as saying "the injunction would put them out of business, forcing them to lay off 70 workers, euthanize their cows, lose a $4 million per month milk contract, and default on local creditors."

The article continued: "'The department’s order would have significant ramifications to the local community where the dairy is located,' te Velde [wrote]. 'Many of our employees are Latino and rely on the dairy to support their family.'"

The Tillamook creamery, for its part, is reported to have said in an e-mail to the Statesman-Journal at the end of February that "based on a number of recent factors that indicate deterioration of the Lost Valley operation, Tillamook has initiated the process to terminate our contract with Lost Valley Farm."

Despite this, as of the end of March, Tillamook was still buying milk from the dairy, according to an article in The Oregonian, which also contained photos taken by an Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) inspector showing the horrendous living conditions of the cows at the dairy. The article quotes a spokeswoman for Tillamook as saying "it is better for the cows and environment to keep a relationship with the dairy."

Also in late March the State of Oregon announced it had reached a settlement with Lost Valley to allow it continue operating. An article announcing the settlement said that "under the new agreement, Lost Valley can generate up to 65,000 gallons of wastewater per day compared with the 514,000 the dairy estimated it would need. It also must comply with other terms of its permit, such as notifying the state if there is a wastewater or manure spill. And the dairy must remove 24.4 million gallons of liquid manure from its overloaded storage facilities by summer, so that it can avoid polluting local water sources during a heavy rainstorm."

Reactions to the settlement were swift.

"The state’s settlement barely requires more than compliance with the permit already in place—it’s a status quo deal that lets Lost Valley off the hook. The Governor and ODA should have continued seeking to close the operation, which they should never have approved in the first place,' said Tarah Heinzen, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch, in a press release issued by a coalition of farm, environmental and animal welfare organizations.

"If ODA refuses to use its authority to stop factory farms with repeated and serious violations, Oregon clearly needs stronger water and air pollution laws to bar such irresponsible proposals in the first place,” said Scott Beckstead, rural affairs director for the Humane Society of the United States. “For example, Oregon does not require air pollution permits or monitoring at factory farms, and legislation to establish air quality protections from the industry failed last year."

Amy Van Saun of the Center for Food Safety said in the press release that the organization was extremely disappointed in the state for not using its authority to prevent this factory dairy from coming in. "And now that disappointment continues with a weak settlement despite numerous, disturbing permit violations that endanger public health and the environment. We warned ODA and the Governor that this would happen, especially with an operation of this enormous size, and business-as-usual is not an acceptable response."

In the settlement, weekly inspections by the state to insure compliance were agreed to for a period of one year. If Lost Valley complies for that period, it will be allowed to return to operating under its original permit. Specifics have not been made available as to how te Velde and Lost Valley would rectify the violations outlined in the lawsuit and meet the new conditions for waste limits and removal while maintaining the same number of cows at the facility.


UPDATE: Lost Valley's owner, California businessman Greg te Velde, has been drawing water from a protected aquifer in the Boardman area, with the tacit permission of Oregon Governor Kate Brown, her staff and the directors of at least three state agencies, according to a damning article in The Salem Statesman-Journal posted on March 23rd.

It says te Velde "moved ahead without the necessary permits, using a loophole in Oregon law to pull water out of an underground aquifer that’s been off limits to new wells for 42 years, alarming neighboring farmers who say their water supplies are now at risk." The paper said it has documents showing that Brown and state officials "knew the dairy would fall back on the loophole if a proposed water trade was challenged."

The article said that te Velde drilled three wells into the aquifer that is used for drinking water by area residents. The aquifer, which local residents use for drinking water, was designated a Groundwater Management Area (GWMA), so named because nitrate concentrations in many area groundwater samples exceed the federal safe drinking water standard.

When state officials found out about the illegal wells, te Velde agreed to truck in water, but the newspaper reports that "records show he brought in little water. Instead, Water Resources officials discovered months later that te Velde actually drew most of the water from one of the wells, claiming an exemption for watering stock — just as the earlier memos among the governor's staff and state agencies had predicted.

"And when ordered to install a monitoring device on the well, te Velde put in one with an unauthorized reset button, according to Water Resources officials. Now, the state's water officials say they have no idea how much water the dairy is taking out of the aquifer."


UPDATE: A recent report in the East Oregonian newspaper indicated that Rabobank, a Dutch agricultural lender, claimed that Greg te Velde, owner of Lost Valley Farm, had defaulted on part of $60 million in loans for the Boardman dairy and two other dairies te Velde owns in California. "John Top, owner of Toppenish Livestock, said they will begin preparing next week for the auction, which is scheduled for April 27," the article stated. "However, according to a preliminary injunction filed in Morrow County, te Velde has not given the auctioneer permission to enter the dairy."

Today (Thursday, 4/5/17) I was able to reach Cody Buckendorf, Operations Manager at Toppenish Livestock, who said that an on-site auction was going ahead on Friday, April 27th, and that the auction company had been given access to the property. He said that their first day on the property to process cows prior to auction was yesterday, (Wednesday, April 5), and that the bank was estimating there would be 19,000 cows auctioned. When questioned about the conditions he observed at the dairy, he said that, contrary to the photos taken by the inspector that led to its shutdown (photos, above), "it was one of the cleanest dairies I've seen." Read the full post.


Read my article on Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities about the issues mega-dairies pose to Oregon's air, water, environment and communities, as well as Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese and other coverage about factory farms in Oregon. Photos obtained via a public records request by Friends of Family Farmers which shared them with media outlets.

Source materials as follows: