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Humboldt Made is finding itself and growing up fast

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Photo by Jodie Marynowski

What does Humboldt Made mean to you? You've likely seen the logo on grocery store displays and the soft focus videos produced several years ago celebrating the county's vistas and lovingly crafted small business products. So, you shop local. And there's a chance your neighbor is one of the more than 100 Humboldt Made members.

But what does Humboldt Made actually mean?

The organization has been trying to define what makes a business Humboldt Made-worthy since the brand launched six years ago. In the year since its visionary and hard-working leader Angie Schwab left for the East Coast, Humboldt Made has scrambled to organize and find its identity, as well as a solid financial foundation to move forward. With new leadership in place, the group is attempting to expand and answer some big questions about membership and marijuana. Humboldt Made is growing up fast.

 

Humboldt Made came to fruition at the end of the last decade, as a county economic development project funded by a Headwaters grant, the North Coast Small Business Development Center and federal grant money.

Led by then-county economic specialist Schwab, the group launched with an ambitious film project showcasing the fresh, wholesome, farm-to-table nature of Humboldt's food and drink manufacturers. Their intended audience was out-of-towners — tourists and, more importantly, the big movers of gourmet foodstuffs like Whole Foods and specialty expos.

Schwab, like many of the people who would go on to join Humboldt Made, started her own small business after moving to Humboldt County. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Schwab moved to Humboldt County with her husband, Brandon, when he took a professor position in Humboldt State University's geology department. Schwab, with her Master's degree in public affairs in hand, spent some time earning $7.50 an hour as Arcata Main Street's assistant director, before figuring she could do better on her own. So she started her own business, Humboldt Artworks, operating a gallery, publishing a magazine and consulting with artists and businesses. She began taking advantage of the services of the Small Business Development Center, developed North Coast Open Studios and eventually began contracting with the county for marketing and development as she became aware "that we needed to change the game in economic development to help some of the small businesses grow."

But from Humboldt Made's inception, there were questions and concerns about what types of businesses should be involved.

"What [Humboldt Made] is and what it was reflects the ideas of hundreds of people woven together into something meaningful," Schwab says. "Sometimes it was an argument — it was a big trick to weave the ideas together and have people come to a consensus about who we were going to serve and what that meant exactly."

Schwab left Humboldt Made last July. Her husband took a job at Western Carolina University, and she was recently hired as the executive director of Folkmoot USA, which brings in folk music performers from around the world to foster cultural understanding.

But Schwab remains connected to Humboldt County and the Humboldt Made community. When she first moved she was getting a call a day from a Humboldt Made business owners seeking advice. Nowadays, those calls are down to about once a week, she says, adding that they're really more about the friendships she's maintained than professional advice.

 

T. Aaron Carter seems like the type of person who responds to every challenge with a chuckle and a smile — but maybe it's the pint of local beer he sips as he sits in Old Town's Humboldt Bay Tourism Center.

Carter's imposing frame is rounded by his boyish curls and affable nature. The 37-year-old is a native of Taft, California, a Central Valley city of 10,000 where the oil derricks are to the skyline what the redwoods are to Humboldt County's.

After college in Houston, Carter set his eyes on the "cheapest place [to live] in California on the beach: Eureka. I came up here and fell in love."

Carter says he's always been interested in marketing and brand development — making an idea a reality. While working as Pacific Outfitters' marketing director, he approached Schwab, asking if the outdoor retailer could join the organization. "She said, 'No — you don't manufacture anything,'" he recalls.

That got him thinking, and when Schwab left for the East Coast, Carter applied for her position, eventually getting it in the beginning of this year.

Actually, it wasn't exactly Schwab's position, says Humboldt Made Board Member Don Banducci.

"I will just say that Angie — she was Humboldt Made, she had the vision, she was something of an artist," Banducci says. "She rallied a lot of people around her that believed in the vision and her. All of a sudden, that was gone."

Schwab's departure was the end of the formative years, Banducci says, and now Humboldt Made has to mature quickly. "We're entering the realm of being a real organization with real procedures and funding expectations and delivery expectations on the part of a lot of people."

But they're through the roughest patch, Banducci says, thanks to board members putting in extra effort and Carter "working his ass off."

 

When Carter applied for the executive director position he brought with him a vision: expand. He wants to see more types of businesses in Humboldt Made, and to help small businesses grow, even if it means moving more of their operations out of the area. Essentially, he's betting on local roots as the most important economic driver for Humboldt County.

Since the beginning, Humboldt Made has struggled to define its role, both publicly and within the ranks of its members and directors.

"It has been a wrestling match to figure out who qualifies, what services they need to grow, and what services Humboldt made is qualified to provide," Banducci says.

So Carter's first step was to bring a Humboldt State University economics student in to hash out the definition of a "local business."

The result of that work was an expanded look at the types of companies that support Humboldt Made's mission. In addition to the traditional makers and agricultural producers, restaurants now qualify, as long as they're locally owned and operated and carry at least five Humboldt Made maker products. Humboldt Made has opened its doors to retailers as well, and now includes a partners and sponsors category for businesses and individuals the support the organization with money or other "in-kind benefits."

Humboldt Made had long been thought of as a locals-only type of organization, an agency that lauded buying locally and using locally made goods. People who brought stuff from out of the area, or who utilized out-of-area labor were looked down upon.

But being 100 percent Humboldt is nearly impossible, says Banducci, unless you're making handcrafted redwood products with homemade tools. In a global economy, makers are relying on ingredients, products and processes that simply don't exist here.

Take beer for example. The water is local, but what about the grain? The hops? The bottles? The six-pack carriers? Coffee and chocolate, some of Humboldt's favorite treats, aren't grown anywhere nearby, though supporting the local manufacturers and retailers of those kinds of foods goes a lot further toward the economy in a small community like Humboldt than buying Starbucks or Hershey's. Carter is driven by local-minded ambition. He says he watched Taft, his hometown, "dry up" when a single K-Mart opened in city limits.

And even things that can be made locally are sometimes driven out of the county by a business owner's ambitions. Tulip Perfume, which was much celebrated earlier this year when it began selling its products through Target, is considering setting up its manufacturing on the East Coast to meet that demand.

Daniel Bixler, co-founder of Humboldt Hot Sauce, says he's dealt with plenty of animosity about his company's decision to produce and package its sauce in Sonoma County, where a facility exists that can fill 10,000 bottles a day, a necessity, he says, for a company that sells its product in 600 stores in 15 states across the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska, and has to meet rigorous FDA food safety standards.

Bixler says he's committed to Humboldt County — he owns homes and has kids here, as does co-owner Cal Ferris. They are the only employees of Humboldt Hot Sauce at the moment, so the profits return to the community, he says.

And to him, "localism is more a series of ethical decisions." His priorities are following the law, and creating a safe, healthy, fresh, GMO-free product. Sure, the guava nectar and mangoes might be sourced from Hawaii sometimes, but makers have to seek products and services from out of the area to fulfill those priorities. In the next five years, Bixler hopes that all of the sauces sold in Humboldt County will be canned in Humboldt County, and he hopes to branch out into rubs and salad dressings to expand local viability.

Moving operations out of town may irk sensibilities, including those of some Humboldt Made members, but to Carter and those in business and economic development, growth is good. If businesses are willing to keep their administration and management here, to support their community, they shouldn't be shunned for exporting parts of their businesses to areas where it's cheaper to bottle and distribute goods.

Banducci says that exporting manufacturing isn't all bad, citing the sale of his own company, Yakima, in the mid-1990s. Under new ownership, Yakima moved its manufacturing to Mexico and shipping to San Diego, cutting 40 Humboldt jobs and incurring the wrath of locals who felt betrayed by the move. But, Banducci, says, that move allowed Yakima to expand its marketing and sales potential, and the company reinvested in Arcata, eventually adding 75 design, marketing, management and administrative positions locally. "And those are good jobs," he says. "We have to embrace it all — whatever you need to grow, as long as the roots and administration remain in Humboldt."

The county's high schools and universities offer strong entrepreneurial programs, Carter says. Humboldt's problem, he says, is it raises smart, motivated, business-minded kids who then leave the area. "Once they're successful, we send them out — that's when the community is supposed to get its return on investment."

To Carter, the focus shouldn't be on what percentage of Humboldt Made members' products are made with local ingredients — it should be where the dollar is coming from. And the best thing for this economy, he insists, is bringing in outside dollars with Humboldt's value-added products.

That's not particularly new to Humboldt Made's philosophy, but another of Carter's expansions is: Turned off by Pacific Outfitters' rejection, he imagined an organization that wasn't exclusively made up of manufacturers.

As long as a business is locally headquartered and community-minded it can now be a Humboldt Made member. That means retail shops, restaurants and servers: Redwood Capital Bank was the first service-providing company to join, a move that Marketing Director Mary Curless Smith says was a show of goodwill toward the community. "Our bank is Humboldt made," she says. "It was founded here. It's headquartered here. It's kind of a natural partnership."

Carter says the bank can help educate members and the community at large about business and the importance of marketing local products out of the area. A benefit of expanding to diverse members is the unique expertise that each type of business brings, because Humboldt Made functions as a businesses-helping-businesses group that goes beyond anything the splintered local chambers of commerce do. Where else, Carter asks, can woodworkers meet with chocolatiers at a mixer and dream up a collaboration on expo displays? Senior members learn from newbies about the latest software, and even those who would seem to be in competition — beer makers, for example — learn from each other. Carter calls it "co-opetition."

In addition to these swap meets of ideas, Humboldt Made organizes buyer tours and helps prep and send vendors to trade shows around the west. Recently, a "food forager" for Whole Foods toured Humboldt County, visiting a quinoa farm and other manufacturers, and meeting with food producers.

"Humboldt Made needs to be inclusive not exclusive," Carter says. And expansion doesn't just help the members, it also helps the organization find stability. "If we can help these businesses grow, Humboldt Made naturally grows with it."

Banducci says Carter's push to expand has been somewhat controversial.

"It's been a subject of some very animated discussion," he says. "A retailer can certainly embrace the values of Humboldt Made products ... but they don't necessarily fit the original vision of 'makers and producers.'"

Humboldt Made has more than 100 members now, and relies very little on donations and grants, Carter says. Basic membership, which essentially gets your business listed on the website, begins at $250 a year. Depending on what benefits they want, businesses can spend up to $10,000 a year. Carter calls most of those high-level members Humboldt Made alumni, successful businesses that remain in the organization for the camaraderie and to help other small companies.

Carter expects a bump in applications with the loosened requirements, and says, "I believe it can be supported through memberships."

 

If loosening Humboldt Made's membership requirements has been a source of controversy, it stands to pale in comparison to the organization's next big decision.

Humboldt Made was conceived as a calculated rejection of marijuana. Not an anti-marijuana campaign, by any means, but a rebranding meant to appeal to the farmers, ranchers and foodmakers of the region who wanted more than a knowing wink when they tell out-of-towners where they are from.

While Humboldt Made eschewed medical marijuana companies, Schwab says that didn't mean there wasn't interest.

"Marijuana always was a big issue," she says. "There wasn't a week that went by that I didn't get a call from a grower asking for assistance."

Most of those growers, she says, rightfully wanted to be seen as farmers. They also often fit the criteria for Humboldt Made membership, but for the crop they were harvesting.

"My hope was that they could kind of uncover and legitimize their industry," Schwab says. "The darkness around it — the crime — spoils it. And that element truly diverted away from what Humboldt Made was about."

Plus, the organization was still receiving money from a decidedly anti-marijuana federal government, Schwab says, giving the organization little leeway in how it responded to growers.

"The answer that came from me and my board was: 'It's not legal. When it's legal we can talk about it.'"

Of course, medical marijuana has been legal, with little regulation, in California since 1996, when Proposition 215 passed. But in Humboldt Made's early years, the U.S. Department of Justice was cracking down on legal dispensaries and growers, and threatening local governments that were considering regulating the industry.

Recently, the DOJ has changed its tune — at least in lip service — saying it will take a hands-off approach in states that have legalized recreational and medical marijuana. That's led to a much bolder marijuana community in Humboldt and beyond.

Widespread expectations of statewide adult use legalization in 2016 have led to the rapid formation of groups like California Cannabis Voice Humboldt. Along with trying to shape local regulations, the group has sought to legitimize farmers with a sustained public relations campaign casting sunshine on local grow outfits.

All that led, in early June, to a meeting with Humboldt Made.

"We've been kicking this can down the road for a while and it's time to act," says Banducci, admitting that he had been one of Humboldt Made's board members who preferred not to deal with the pot issue.

But, he says, some existing Humboldt Made members are planning to release marijuana products, and the desire of growers and other cannabis companies to join the organization is increasing. CCVH came to Humboldt Made, Banducci says, because of the group's reputation and established name. "For them, it's instant credibility," he says, adding that if Humboldt Made rejects marijuana, Humboldt's cannabis community is going to launch its own marketing campaign. Several groups, including Emerald Grown, are already embarking on that process.

Carter says he's not worried about any legal ramifications of allowing cannabis businesses into the fold. Without federal dollars supporting the organization, he doesn't anticipate government interference. Carter, if not the board at large, seems enthusiastic about marijuana and the research and economic promise that legalization holds.

Humboldt Made's board members will tour a marijuana farm in the coming weeks, and Carter and Banducci are optimistic the board will decide whether to accept marijuana businesses by the end of the month. "Everyone's in agreement that everyone needs to make a decision," Banducci says. But neither he nor Carter hazard a guess as to how the board will vote.

"It's a tough issue," Schwab says. "My feeling is that [the board] will evolve into the right decision for them. They may be a little bit slower than the greater community. ... Humboldt Made is pretty new and trying to legitimize themselves."

 

As a booster and promoter of the county and its entrepreneurs, Humboldt Made's seen a good amount of progress in its formative years. As an exchange of ideas, and an encourager of innovation and entrepreneurial enthusiasm, there's no doubt the group's been a success.

But is a host of locally headquartered businesses enough to raise Humboldt's economic tide? Can Humboldt Made's energy win over the kingmakers of boutique foods — the distributors and retailers who can bolster Humboldt's makers outside of the Redwood Curtain? Will an embrace or rejection of marijuana sink Humboldt Made's ship?

Ultimately, the organization's long-term success — even with a new spark of enthusiasm — will depend on its ability to find an identity and define just what it means to be Humboldt Made.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed to correct information about Tulip Perfume.

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About The Author

Grant Scott-Goforth

Bio:
Grant Scott-Goforth has been an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal since 2013.

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