Products attracting national buyers, local companies say
The scrambled eggs at breakfast came from chickens raised on Del Norte pastures. The cheese at lunch came from Del Norte cows, and the salad, broccoli and carrots were grown in Del Norte soil.
But attendees at a local economic summit on Friday learned that local products reach far beyond Del Norte's borders.
The 11th annual Economic Summit, hosted by the Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce, covered topics ranging from projects in local and tribal government as well as challenges and accomplishments in health, education and transportation.
The highlight of the event, however, was a panel discussion featuring representatives of Alexandre Kids LLC, Rumiano Cheese, Oat Hill Organic Beef, Dahlstrom and Watt Bulb Farms and Ocean Air Farms.
Rather than highlight a single business, Councilwoman Kelly Schellong, who organized the event, said she wanted to focus on an industry that has grown. She pointed out that even though the timber industry has declined, Del Norte's commercial fishing industry is one of the biggest in the state. The farming industry has also grown, she said.
Schellong challenged each member of the panel discussion to throw out ideas on businesses that could support their own operations.
"What I hear from these guys and ladies is they have endured history and they have endured markets and they are meeting that market demand today," she said. "I saw passion that you can't make up."
Blake Alexandre, owner of Alexandre EcoDairy, and his children Joseph, Vanessa and Dalton said their business started as a "kid's project" nearly a decade ago. Joseph, Vanessa and Dalton and their siblings started with 150 chickens and sold the eggs at local farmer's markets, gradually expanding to stores in Crescent City and Humboldt County.
When their eggs could be found in 30 retail stores throughout Northern California, Joseph Alexandre said he and his siblings formed Alexandre LLC with his parents.
"We gave them a lot of power," he said, "Which was a great thing. They guided us tremendously over the next few years."
Now with 9,000 laying hens, Alexandre Kids LLC has a presence in Whole Foods Market stores in Northern California and the Bay Area, Joseph Alexandre said. The business generated more than $2 million in sales last year, allowing Alexandre Kids to go from one full-time employee last year to five full-time employees this year, he said.
The business is continuing to grow. In addition to providing the eggs for breakfast, Alexandre Kids LLC gave a dozen eggs to each participant.
"Never would I have thought that I'd be able to provide you guys with all these eggs without blinking an eye," Joseph Alexandre said.
Joby Rumiano of Rumiano Cheese told summit attendees that organic products and those free of genetically modified organisms are in high demand.
Like Alexandre Kids, Rumiano said his family's business is also being noticed by major retailers. Safeway will carry Rumiano Cheese in 1,000 stores starting on Saturday, he said. And at a recent trade show in Anaheim, Rumiano said he was approached by head buyers for companies like Whole Foods, Costco and Target.
"There are huge opportunities," he said. "People really do want non-GMO products. Because of our unique geographical climate it allows us to have a little niche."
Rumiano Cheese currently pays $59,000 in property taxes in Del Norte County, purchases $22 million in Del Norte County milk and pays $533,000 to transport that milk to its factory. The company also employs 42 people at its Crescent City plant and pays $4.2 million in salaries, Rumiano said.
Even though they don't employ 50 people, or distribute beyond Del Norte County, Paul Madeira and his wife Julie Jo Ayers Williams, of Ocean Air Farms, generated a local movement by providing healthier food to the community, Schellong said.
Madeira said he and Williams started Ocean Air Farms, which sells organic vegetables, before the Saturday Farmer's Market in Crescent City was in its infancy. But even though they don't have active competitors, Madeira said Ocean Air was competing with a "food paradigm" - cheap food. Getting people to look at eating vegetables a different way is a challenge, he said.
But, Madeira added, more people than ever want to eat more organic, healthier food.
"You've got three of the biggest farmers; all of them experimenting with different ways to sell themselves," he said. "When you sell to the wholesaler it's impossible to trace back to the producer, which is what people demand."
Madeira and Williams farm on 20 acres of land and offer internships for college graduates, providing them with food and a place to live in exchange for the labor.
Toward the end of the summit, Angie Schwab, executive director of Humboldt Made, a membership-driven organization that markets and brands products in Humboldt County, brought up the possibility of a similar organization that will market and brand Del Norte products.
Working with Building Healthy Communities Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands, Schwab mentioned potential ventures including a community-supported fishery program. Under that program, the community would buy shares at the beginning of the season in exchange for fresh fish throughout the season, she said.
Building Healthy Communities is also investing in leadership training and facilitation training that would focus on agribusiness concepts, Schwab said.
"People who feel like they're in control of their future are happier," she said. "Alexandre and Rumiano is meeting a market need. It's real and it's authentic and it's who they are."
Reach Jessica Cejnar at email@example.com .