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Hilmar Cheese: From local farmers to global exporter
Two million gallons of milk is processed each day at the Hilmar and Dalhart, Texas facilities. - photo by KRISTINA HACKER / The Journal
The Hilmar Cheese Company, which has grown into the world’s largest single-site producer of natural cheese and whey products, has some scribbled ideas on a napkin and an exasperated wife to thank for their success.
Twenty-five years ago, 12 dairy farmers struggling to thrive individually, came up with the idea to band together as one entity and put their products on the market.
“There was a group of us who would get together at a local Hilmar coffee shop and debate the idea of a cheese plant,” said Richard Clauss, chairman of the Hilmar Cheese Company board of directors.
Though the idea was well thought out and heartily supported, it took the cajoling of one of the farmers’ wives and her instruction to “either build it or quit talking about it,” to make it a reality.
Within a few months of that ultimatum, the dairymen had pulled their funds and resources, with some even staking the family farm, and started laying down the foundation that would become the Hilmar Cheese Company. These pioneering farmers, wanting to maximize the products from their Jersey cow herds, decided to manufacture and market their own line of cheese. Twenty-five years later, the still privately owned company employs more than 1,000 people, operates two plants in two separate states and is the world leader in the production of cheese, whey protein, and lactose.
“We had a dual approach when we started Hilmar Cheese Company,” said Chief Executive Officer and President John Jeter, who was also the company’s first employee. “First we wanted to pay for milk differently, which meant paying dairies a premium for producing a higher-quality product. Second, we wanted to invest heavily in new technology so we could create the products customers wanted and develop markets across the U.S. and the world.”
The Hilmar Cheese Company and its subsidiaries have become a leader in the agricultural community, both on a local and global scale. The company has received numerous accolades for the technology behind the production of their large volume cheese market and their implementation of green business practices is setting new standards within the industry for environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture, said company spokesperson Denise Skidmore.
Recently, Hilmar Ingredients, a division of the company that produces and internationally markets whey proteins and lactose, was named as the 2009 Dairy Exporter of the Year by the U.S. Dairy Export Council and co-sponsor Dairy Foods magazine for their leadership in driving global demand for American dairy products.
“Our employees and the dairy farmers who ship their milk to Hilmar Cheese Company have accomplished so much together,” Jeter said. “From a small cheese plant on the corner in 1984 to this recognition for leadership exporting products around the globe, we are grateful to the employees, dairy farm families and communities that have supported our success.”
For Hilmar Ingredients the journey to becoming the leading exporter began in 1994 when the company shipped their first container of lactose from the Port of Oakland to customers in Asia. Today, the company’s whey proteins and lactose products are sent to more than 40 countries.
“We have traveled the world to learn first-hand how to provide customer service and to meet the unique needs of people in different countries,” said Kevin Vogt, vice president and general manager of Hilmar Ingredients. “We listen closely to customers in China who want different products from customers in Mexico. From our interactions, we pick up valuable insight — whether about a new product or a new appreciation of culture and attitudes. Although the U.S. is core to our business, exports are a significant contributor to the success of Hilmar Ingredients and contribute to our growth.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.