By Tim Linden
The December Organic Grower Summit, which featured Western Growers as its presenting sponsor, showcased a plethora of WG members throughout the duration of the Monterey, Calif. event.
Longtime WG Board Member Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies received the Organic Grower of the Year award, WG President and CEO Dave Puglia and Vice President of Innovation Walt Duflock served as moderators of several dynamic educational sessions and many WG members participated on panels and attended the two-day meeting. In addition, members of the WG community, including residents of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, exhibited at the corresponding trade show.
Smith was recognized for his lengthy agricultural career, which has included much innovation in all aspects of farming. He began growing crops for the organic market 25 years ago when the contract grower was asked by Earthbound farms to plant organic spring mix. Western Growers honored Smith’s award during the conference with a VIP reception attended by many of the association’s board members.
Smith received his award during the closing keynote presentation that featured Puglia and California shippers Keith Barnard of Mission Produce, Bianca Kaprielian of Fruit World and Mike Valpredo of Country Sweet Produce. The session, which included WG’s Puglia as moderator, was billed as “A Conversation with the Next Generation of Organic Leaders” and did not disappoint. This trio of farmers, each of whom came from longtime farming families, exhibited their passion for agriculture and their commitment to taking their operations to the next level.
Puglia and his panel discussed the challenges of being agriculturalists in California as well as the opportunities in the organic sector. While they agreed that California is a difficult place to conduct business, they also expressed optimism that the future remains bright for California agriculture. Kaprielian noted that specialty varieties are finding favor among a new generation of consumers. The Valpredo operation is focusing on value-added products as well as organic production to stay relevant. Barnard noted that Mission Produce has greatly diversified its production footprint, now operating in nine countries, as a way to mitigate some of the challenges in California.
Speaking of the consumer, Kaprielian sees an evolving shopper that is looking for more transparency, more sustainability, and more accountability in their produce offerings. She added that she doesn’t see the sustainable movement replacing organics. “It’s not an either/or,” she said. “It’s an ‘and’. The consumer wants more.”
Barnard also predicted that increased sustainability efforts, and accounting for them, will increase moving forward. He called organics a “lifestyle” choice, but said consumers see sustainability as a “responsibility” and want companies “to do the right thing.”
Valpredo would like to see universal sustainability standards adopted by which a company can measure itself. He said USDA certified organic standard greatly increased the sales and production of organic produce, and he sees a sustainability standard having the same positive effect.
In discussing how each company tells its story to consumers, Puglia revealed that Western Growers also uses a transparent approach of unscripted videos of member operations that it posts on social media to help tell the story of Western agriculture. He said the postings have received many hits from urban America, indicating the goal of educating city folks about ag is achieving success.
Puglia noted the paradox of supermarkets wanting packaging of organics to make sure they get the proper ring at retail and the preference of organic consumers to have less plastic and packaging. Kaprielian said inroads are being made with sustainable packaging indicating that being able to serve both the retailer and environmentally conscious consumers is not too far down the road.
The panelists took great pride in what they do and the products they produce. Echoing a sentiment expressed by each, Valpredo called production agriculture “a fantastic world to be in.”
In the “Ag Tech in the Field” workshop session, Sébastien Boyer of FarmWise and Gabe Sibley of Verdant Robotics both touted advancements in automation that are helping farmers address the labor issues everyone faces.
Duflock moderated two sessions. One was modeled after the AgSharks® competition that was held during the Western Growers 2021 Annual Meeting in November in Del Mar. Though there was no actual competition, Duflock invited five members of WGCIT to give brief pitches to the audience to give it a snapshot of the innovation WG is championing in its Salinas Valley center.
In the other session, Duflock discussed regenerative ag and the sustainability labeling with Seana Day of Culterra Capital and Vonnie Estes of what is now called the International Fresh Produce Association (formerly PMA & United Fresh). The two panelists discussed many issues including the progress of work being done to create carbon credit for the use of agricultural land. While they see promise in that arena, they both said that it is not on the near horizon. One of the problems appears to be that those trying to figure out how to measure carbon sequestration in the soil are focused on monetizing the effort rather than actually helping farmers. Day admitted this but said the technology being developed and the power of the conversation around the concept is beneficial. “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress,” he said.
The duo had a similar 40,000-foot view of vertical farming, and the investment dollars and buzz being generated by controlled environment agriculture. Estes opined that the current companies making a splash in this space may not survive the shakeout that is sure to come as that production practice tries to become economically viable, but the ag technology being developed is here to stay and will help the industry in the long run.
Another fascinating educational session had four well-known grower-shippers discussing their transition to organic production and how they were able to scale successfully. Moderator Rod Braga of Braga Farms led Jessica Hunter of Del Rey Avocados, Scott Mabs of Homegrown Organic Farms and Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens in a discussion of the opportunities and challenges in the organic sector. While they all expressed a passion for utilizing organic farming methods, each of these California producers was also clearly driven by the marketing opportunities organics offered.
Hunter initiated Del Rey’s foray into organic production with a 10-acre grove in north San Diego County. She learned how to coax yields from that grove equivalent to what it could produce conventionally and loves teaching these techniques to many other growers in the area. She said growing organic avocados makes great sense if you can achieve equal production because the market price is typically significant higher.
Homegrown and Lakeside operate exclusively in the organic sector and have forged successful models over the past 25 years. The leaders of both those companies, as well as Braga, see a bright future for organic fruits and vegetables.
Still another session explored the opportunities for both growing and marketing organic vegetables in Mexico. Joshua Tamayo detailed Taylor Farms’ facility south of the border, which processes both conventional and organic fresh-cut products grown in the United States and Mexico for sale to retailers in both countries. He noted that organic certification is more difficult in Mexico and so are the consumer labeling requirements.
Ed Morales, who is the director of food safety for JV Smith Companies/Agricola El Toro, discussed organic production south of the border and has had a similar experience. It is not an easy proposition.
While most of the sessions were necessarily focused on the production end of the business to satisfy the many growers in attendance, there was one session that detailed how well organic produce continues to do in the marketplace. Tom Barnes of Category Partners, a company that analyzes retail scan data, said organic produce sales have climbed more than 20 percent when comparing sales in 2021 to 2019. He revealed that data analysts believe it is more accurate to use two years of data when identifying trends because 2020 was an unusual, COVID-dominated year. The data clearly points to a growing and profitable segment of the ag industry.
*pictured above: Keynote presentation Next-Gen A Conversation with the Next Generation of Organic Leaders
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