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OPS draws record crowd

MONTEREY, CA — In its first four years of existence, the Organic Produce Summit has doubled its attendance and significantly increased both its exhibit space and the number of exhibitors. It also has upped its game with retailer participation and continued offering top-notch, well-known speakers that bring a genuine connection to the organic produce world.DriscollsJay Johnson of Driscoll’s discussed the company’s berry program with Jeff Coburn of Walmart.

“We are extremely proud of the retailer support we have received,” said Matt Seeley, founder of the event and chief executive officer of the affiliated Organic Produce Network. “The number of the retailers continues to increase each year, but more than that it’s the quality and leadership abilities of those retailers that make a difference. It really is a point of differentiation for our show. We strive to provide the best information and education about the growing organic produce category. And with our various networking opportunities, retailers and suppliers tell us we are hitting the mark as an event where business gets done.”

By the numbers, OPS 2019 had more than 1,600 attendees, almost 150 exhibitors, in excess of 250 retailers and a plethora of educational seminars that were packed to the rafters. In addition, an overflow crowd attended the opening reception on July 10 and roamed the aisles during the July 11 afternoon trade show. Once again, the show was held at the Monterey Conference Center, here.

The two keynote presentations stressed the value of organic produce as both speakers articulated the mission they are on to help create healthier people on a healthier planet. Robyn O’Brien, vice president of rePlant Capital, took the audience on the personal journey that has created a passionate spokesperson for effecting change in agricultural production. Dan Barber, a chef, author and advocate of bringing good farming practices to the table, spoke of his efforts to create better varieties as well as supporting farming practices that bring more “deliciousness” to our plates.

O’Brien, a self-described conservative from Texas, spoke of the transformation that occurred in her life when one of her children almost died in 2006 from an allergic reaction. Always a type A personality, O’Brien was involved in the financial world and considered establishing a hedge fund when her daughter got sick. Instead, she focused her attention on the food allergy world and discovered that we are becoming a nation with chronic disease issues.

She said one in three Americans have what she called one of the “four As”: allergies, autism, asthma or ADHD. Her analytical mind led her to suspect that the culprit is something that has changed over the past couple of decades. O’Brien believes the use of genetically modified corn and other agricultural products as ingredients for many different products has led to the rise in these health issues.

She has become a food and health expert and author and has been called “the Erin Brockovich of food” in comparison to the woman who drew a connection between chemical dumping by PG&E and health concerns in a California desert town.

O’Brien said the audience of organic food producers are the leaders in the fight against altered ag products and the damage she believes they cause. She believes there needs to be “radical transparency” to what we eat and that agricultural production has to be reimagined so that sustainable agricultural practices are celebrated and capitalized.

Barber told the story of Alain Ducasse, one of the most famous chefs in the world, visiting his restaurant and tasting bread and butter produced locally. Ducasse has such a refined sense of taste that he could tell a food processor was used to churn the butter and that it had rained a few days prior to the harvesting of the wheat that made the bread.

Barber used this story to illustrate the importance of the “whole farm” approach to production, which celebrates the role crop rotation and the health of the soil play in the “deliciousness” of our food.

He has gotten involved in several endeavors that are focused on creating better tasting food, such as the development of Honeynut squash as well as the launching of a seed companies that strives for seed that produces better tasting products. He sees a correlation between nutrition and flavor, and is trying to breed for both using old-fashioned breeding methods.

He calls organics “the original disruptor” and said his goal is to “change the world one seed at a time.”

One workshop session explored the value wholesalers can bring to the organic produce space. Greg Kurkjian, vice president and general manager of The Crosset Company, a Midwest wholesaler, said the firm sources from multiple organic growers and can aggregate supplies much more efficiently than a retailer. He noted that Crosset greatly increased its presence in the organic sector when a large national retailer hired the firm to do just that.

“Our core competency is distribution and logistics,” he said.

Elizabeth Nardi, CEO of Organically Grown Company, based in Portland OR, agreed, noting that her company has been matching the needs of organic growers with retailers for 40 years. Nardi called OGC a “supply chain engineer” and gave an example of an organic purple broccoli item that it has introduced to many of its suppliers and retailers.

Working with growers, OGC has been able to extend that season and give its retail and foodservice customers access to the product for a longer period of time.

Mark Hill, director of organic produce for Baldor, a Northeast foodservice distributor based in the Bronx, NY, said it is well known that chefs love to work with unique varieties that would be difficult to find on their own. Baldor has created a network of both large and small organic growers that are constantly bringing the wholesaler new items to offer to these innovative chefs.

Mark Munger, vice president of sales and marketing for 4Earth Farms in Los Angeles, served as the moderator and said wholesaler across the country have played a significant role in growth of organic produce in this century.

Each of the wholesalers on the panel is working with local organic growers to help them produce crops that retailers and chefs want. Kurkjian said Crosset specifically works with state departments of agriculture in the Midwest to identify programs that they have to help local growers and then helps their grower utilize these programs.

The panelists also noted that they also work with large, year-round commercial growing operations to have year-round consistent supplies. Hill said it is a balancing act to keep West Coast suppliers and local growers happy. At the core of that effort, he said, is Baldor’s commitment to always “get the grower as much money back as possible.”

All of the panelists reported that the organic produce movement still has lots of life and room for growth. Nardi said that while organic produce was once a tougher sell, today’s retailers are specifically looking for organic items to feature. She said organic produce sales continue to grow across the board as all consumer segments adopt healthier eating habits.

Being in the Midwest, Kurkjian said the average consumer might not be as into organics as those on the coasts, but he said there are hot spots where organic sales are robust. He said Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta all have robust organic produce consumers.

In his marketing region, Hill said millennials and Hispanics are driving the organic produce demand. He noted that the oldest millennials turn 35 this year and indicated that they will be a driving force in the economy for years to come.

Convenience in preparation and desire for “clean food” are two trends in the food category that bode well for the sale of organic meal kits at retail, according to Jonathan Steffy, vice president and general manager of Four Seasons Produce, who moderated a panel discussing the subject.

The panel included Amy McClellan, senior vice president of Indiana-based Martin’s Super Markets; Micah Shea, vice president of sales for Taylor Farms/Earthbound Farms in the Salinas Valley; and Calvin College, prepared foods manager for the Lexington Co-op, a 14,000-member retail operation in Buffalo, NY. The foursome explored the topic and generally concluded that there is a great opportunity for increased sales of organic meal solutions, but execution at retail has its challenges.

A survey of 5,000 of Martin’s customer who buy organic produce, revealed that about 45 percent would be more inclined to buy a meal kit if it was made with organic ingredients. And 55 percent said they would be willing to pay a premium of as much as 25 percent for organic meal kits.

McClellan said those results show that there are opportunities to offer an organic meal kit within their stores and increase sales. However, she worries that shrink would be high, as she said large displays are a necessity when selling meal kits.

College, whose background is in foodservice as a chef, likes the concept of offering organic ingredients in a meal kit or salad, but thought making an all-organic offering could cause it to be too expensive for most customers.

However, he believes strongly that organic sales and supplies will continue to increase with the economies of scale bringing the price down and narrowing the gap between conventional and organic produce pricing.

Shea discussed the value proposition offered by Taylor Farms and its newest acquisition, Earthbound Farms. The company offers private-label value-added produce items as well as a large assortment of branded organic salads with the Earthbound Farms label.

He said the company can create custom products to fit the needs of retailers, helping them to offer prepared meal kits or work with retailers providing value-added items that a retailer can use to create their own meal kits.