Top Chef, Tillamook and the unsavory legacy of Oregon’s biggest cheese factory

By Kristina Beggen

Tillamook Creamery earned mega media hits when it announced it was reality TV show Top Chef’s source of dairy products for the Portland season. The pairing makes sense. Both Tillamook and Top Chef have championed sustainable farm practices, ethical treatment of animals and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

There’s only one problem: Tillamook actually gets its milk from mega-dairy factory farms. 

In 2019, Tillamook found itself at the center of a false advertising lawsuit because, contrary to the idyllic scenes of pastoral grazing indicated by its ad campaigns, most cows providing milk for the company are tightly packed residents of Oregon’s biggest mega-dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms. And, like Tillamook, Threemile Canyon Farms has carefully crafted its own greenwashed image. 

Threemile touts its glowing reviews from Validus, the mega-dairy’s animal welfare auditor of choice. Validus is a for-profit company that charges the mega-dairies it audits, inviting questions that have gone unanswered around its motivations in handing out top marks to its clientele. According to an academic paper, Validus charges $1,795 per day for its Animal Welfare Reports-Dairy (AWR-D). 

For all the cost, however, Validus does not address hormone or antibiotic use, nor does it require open pastures for cows. Cows in residence at Threemile Canyon lead their lives in confinement, entirely indoors, separated from their young, and impregnated continuously to produce more milk. 

Threemile Canyon Farms also employs digesters, technology that processes manure to extract methane, a highly combustible, potent greenhouse gas that can be piped through fossil gas pipelines to California, contributing to that state’s horrific record of gas leaks. 

Also left out of the narrative is the groundwater threatened by the lakes of manure produced by mega-dairies, including Threemile. And while Threemile’s publicity material illustrates an image of land set aside specifically for conservation, those set-asides were the result of a settlement with conservation groups in 2000 after a lawsuit challenging Threemile’s water rights and impact upon endangered species in the region —  not of Threemile’s environmental values.  

Threemile Canyon Farms has not been the only mega-dairy supplying milk to Tillamook, however. Until 2018, Tillamook contracted with the now-infamous Lost Valley Farms, site of the proposed Easterday Dairy (which is also seeking to sell milk to Tillamook). Lost Valley Farms’ owner, Greg Te Velde, was forced to shut down the mega-dairy after hundreds of environmental violations, sucking up millions of gallons of water a day in an area where residents are already struggling with drought and nitrate-heavy groundwater. 

The disconnect between Tillamook’s image as a model of sustainability and its transactions with mega-dairies has not been lost on Tillamook. In a 2017 email, Tillamook’s legal representatives acknowledge the news coverage of Lost Valley Farms’ environmental mismanagement doesn’t look good. The email goes on to exhort Te Velde to “not disclose the existence of the Contract or the fact that you provide milk that relates to the production of Tillamook cheese,” as “any association with our brand tarnishes our reputation.”

Tillamook is connected so deeply with mega-dairies that any claims of sustainability on its part are inherently false. So when Top Chef trumpets its use of Tillamook products, it’s actually supporting one of the dirtiest legacies in Oregon.

Kristina Beggen is an organizer with Food & Water Watch and the Stand Up to Factory Farms Coalition. She works at the nexus of environmental and social justice.

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