At the start of harvest in October, a Boundary Bend employee runs a test load of reject fruit. In 2014, the Australia-based Boundary Bend set up its U.S. olive oil operations on 8.8 acres in Woodland under the name Cobram Estate. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

The Woodland Way

With a progressive pro-business climate, Woodland lures agribusiness and global trade to this once-sleepy town

Back Longreads Nov 14, 2017 By Samantha Young

Operating out of three sites in South San Francisco, the San Francisco Spice Co. wanted to consolidate, streamline operations and lower costs. They scheduled trucking routes to send goods out to market to avoid the rush-hour congestion of a major metropolitan area, but that didn’t always mean drivers weren’t stuck in traffic.

When the company began searching for a new location, it conducted a multi-year, nationwide search first with an eye on the East Coast, with fewer challenges to relocate and lower freight shipping rates. Executives traveled to Charlottesville, Va., Plano, Texas, Reno, Nev. and the Willamette Valley in Oregon, just to name a few.

The competition among cities to draw large manufacturing plants is fierce. San Francisco Spice Co. President Mike Vinnicombe says the Woodland City Hall ended up sealing the deal with the City’s accessibility and willingness to work with them. “They are one of the most effective that we ran into in the country,” he says. “You could have a meeting with the decision-makers and get a decision.”

Today, the San Francisco Spice Co. develops new products and manufactures its two brands — Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods and Mike’s Mighty Good Craft Ramen — out of a 175,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Woodland, among what has emerged as a cluster of top food and agriculture companies.

“Woodland has got it all,” says Vinnicombe, who helped relocate the business to the area in 2015.

Woodland isn’t the place most people would think to house an international company — a small town in the Central Valley surrounded by farmland and proud of its historic roots. Yet, the city of 60,000 residents is home to more than two dozen international companies and has become what one international trade expert called a model for growth and prosperity. City leaders have aggressively courted car dealerships, big-box stores, seed research companies that have top-notch laboratories, and food distributors that have brought advances in new technology.

“The dynamic that they are creating, the shared vision that they have throughout their community, there’s really something to it,” Andrew Grant told an international business luncheon this summer, when he served as the president and CEO at the Northern California World Trade Center.

“I call it ‘the Woodland model,’” he added.

New Business 

That Woodland model, Grant explains, is one where a small city has held onto its small-town roots while successfully attracting global trade. One reason businesses choose the city: location.

Woodland sits along major transportation routes, appealing to manufacturers that need to ship product out. Sacramento International Airport is just eight miles away. Interstate 5, the key north-south thoroughfare, and state Highway 113 run through the city. Food processors can ship freight by rail and along the Sacramento River.

The city is the seat of Yolo County government, which has brought jobs and a new courthouse. And 20 miles away is the state capital, giving business and city leaders easy access to government agencies and lawmakers. Employees can also draw from nearby educational talent at UC Davis (one of the country’s top agricultural schools, host of the World Food Center and focused on ag innovation) and Sacramento State.

In 2014, Australian company Boundary Bend also selected Woodland for its California base after an in-depth analysis brought the city to the top of the list. For them, the climate needed to be right for growing olives — not too hot in late summer because that could decrease the oil in the olives, and relatively free of frost in the spring and fall harvest months.

The fertile soil and the temperate climate have brought farmers to the area since the mid-1800s, and the food and agriculture sector drives much of Woodland’s economy. Yolo County, along with the adjacent Solano and Colusa counties, offered a great climate for olive growing.

“Woodland kept coming to the forefront as a city that supports agribusiness. It seemed to be a good fit.”Adam Englehardt, president of U.S. operations, Boundary Bend Olives

Add to that the businesses already in Woodland that could fill Boundary Bend’s needs: parts suppliers, agri-suppliers, employees who had worked in seed research, nut processing or food packaging, a belt manufacturer and engineers.

“Woodland kept coming to the forefront as a city that supports agribusiness,” says Adam Englehardt, who heads up Boundary Bend’s U.S. operations, which produces olive oil under the name Cobram Estate. “It seemed to be a good fit.”

In 2014, the company set up on 8.8 acres in the industrial area of town where they built an olive oil mill, bottling facilities, an olive oil laboratory and administrative offices. They’ve grown quickly with a gross revenue of $20 million, and Englehardt says revenues are forecasted to quadruple in the next year.

A map by the Woodland Food & Ag Business Cluster shows 124 food and ag companies that call Woodland home, including Pacific International Rice Mills (which operates the oldest continually-operating rice mill in California), AgSeeds Unlimited, Sun Foods, SeedTec, Hilleby International, Turold International and Wilkinson International.

A Vibrant Town 

The drive to lure major agricultural business to Woodland is purposeful, a concerted effort by city leaders that began in 2014 — after an assessment of Woodland’s economic strengths revealed a diverse and growing food and ag industry, says Ken Hiatt, Woodland assistant city manager and community development director.

The City updated its general plan to streamline the approval process for new development; invested in a $280 million-project to shift its water supply from groundwater to the cleaner, more reliable Sacramento River; created a food and ag advisory council with leadership from Woodland’s industry cluster; and developed a branding and marketing campaign to promote Woodland as an epicenter of food and agriculture.

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This momentum celebrates what Mayor Angel Barajas describes as the city’s historic agricultural roots and provides a progressive, pro-business climate that yields a thriving tax base.

“We know it as an ag community, but we also know cities develop,” says Barajas, who grew up in Woodland and returned after college. A former chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission, and trustee of the Woodland Joint Unified School District, Barajas was elected to the City Council in 2014 and now serves as mayor. “We’re finding the fine line between growth and protecting our historic roots.”

Walk through the downtown and you’ll find restored 100-year houses, big shady trees lining the streets and a revitalized Main Street that, unlike many Central Valley towns, doesn’t have shuttered, empty storefronts. Woodland’s downtown is on the National Historic Places registry.

The choice in dining alone along Main Street tells the story of success: a wine bar with a patio across from the restored Woodland Opera House, a sushi restaurant, a taqueria, an Irish pub, a brew house, an Afghan eatery and a burger restaurant that serves the mayor’s favorite — a jalapeno burger. Bands and musicians often set up in front of the Opera House on the weekends. The 1937 theater has been restored to splendor and now offers modern-day amenities like luxury recliner seats, reserved seating and a bar in the lobby.

On the south end of town along Interstate 5, residents have the offerings of a major suburban city — Costco, Target, Best Buy, Michaels, In-N-Out Burger and Starbucks. The Hoblit Chrysler Jeep Dodge RAM SRT is the sixth-largest RAM truck dealer (by sales) in the country.

Such amenities, as well as lifestyle affordability, are key draws for major corporations that want to settle here, city and business officials say. The real estate website Zillow lists the median home price in Woodland as $399,000 compared to $795,000 in the San Francisco metro area.

“I’m able to recruit employees from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle,” says Englehardt, of Boundary Bend. “I can bring upper management who want to live here now, whereas four years ago, that would have been a stretch.”

Vision For the Future 

After a nearly four-year process, the City of Woodland this spring adopted an updated general plan that proclaims the city as “the region’s center of agricultural technology and food production, and is recognized globally as a leader in sustainable agriculture.”

Among city leaders’ goals are to continue to develop Woodland into a premier food and agriculture industry cluster, as well as grow its small technology sector by leveraging research expertise at UC Davis, according to the plan.

To that end, the general plan includes a 351-acre research and technology park south of town. While many of the large agricultural companies already in Woodland have developed and implemented their own technologies, investment in agtech is small in the Sacramento Valley region compared to the Silicon Valley, investors say.

Research park backers say the mixed-use planned for this area — with both commercial and residential development — is modeled after other successful tech park developments near major research universities in California, such as in Palo Alto, San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

“Not only do we have the land and the opportunity to develop this, but an outstanding university nearby,” says Lon Hatamiya, president and CEO of the Hatamiya Group, one of the groups involved in the Woodland Research Park. “And there’s a talented workforce and a lower cost of living.”

Such a technology space would be an asset to UC Davis, which lacks facilities nearby to translate their research to development, says Gabriel Youtsey, chief innovation officer for Agriculture and Natural Resources across the University of California system.

The city also wants to encourage smaller companies and startups to locate in incubator spaces downtown. There’s already a nonprofit in town that has helped more than a dozen entrepreneurs. In 2015, Ag Start, a program operated by the nonprofit AgTech Innovation Alliance, opened offices in Woodland to work with tech-driven startups in food and agriculture, seeking to take advantage of the growing global investment in agtech. Rather than providing investment funding, however, the nonprofit provides innovators with space and a point of connection in the community.

“Our incubator provides advice and mentorship and connections,” says John Selep, a business consultant, investor and technology executive who serves on the board.

Tech investors say AgStart’s resources and contacts have been invaluable. When businessman Ron Hadar, who is originally from Israel, wanted advice about the California rice industry, he sought out Selep and the team at AgStart. They connected Hadar with Woodland-based Pacific International Rice Mills so he could develop a prototype for a specialized rice analyzer. His company, Vibe Imaging Analytics, created a high-tech product that can measure the size of each rice kernel, its color and any damage to the grain — a high-tech way to grade the rice and ensure a quality product.

That connection and ability to work directly with a future client is key, Hadar says, because the margins in agtech are much lower than other technology ventures.

“When you sit in a lab and develop a product, you have limited access to people,” Hadar says. “AgStart provided me with contacts and helped me understand the people and we were able to improve the product.”

Grant, the former CEO of the Northern California World Trade Center (and a member of the Comstock’s editorial board), says Woodland is smart to go after a piece of the $3.2 billion international agtech sector, even if it’s just a small slice, because California boasts a strong economy in both agriculture and technology.

“They have a culture and a market positioning that is going to continue to deliver and entice more companies to come here,” Grant says.”