Date: Nov 11, 2021
Magazine:
November/December 2021

By Tim Linden

Longtime Western Growers Board Member Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies will be honored with the Organic Grower of the Year award at the Organic Grower Summit on Thursday, December 2 in Monterey, Calif.

The event, which includes Western Growers as the presenting sponsor, will be held at the Hyatt Regency Dec. 1-2 and will include several educational sessions, keynote addresses, networking social events and a two-day trade show with industry suppliers presenting their latest products to hundreds of organic growers. Smith will receive his well-deserved award during a special general session on Thursday morning. AGCO is the award sponsor and the company’s Director of Marketing Greg Milstead will join the veteran grower on stage to talk about organic farming and Smith’s entry into the organic sector.

The longtime grower recently told Western Grower & Shipper that he began his foray into organic crop production a quarter of a century ago at the request of Earthbound Farms. “Earthbound asked us to grow spring mix when they were first getting into that product,” he said. “It must have been 25 or 26 years ago.”

The company’s organic acreage started increasing from that year on with Pure Pacific Organics Inc. and Earthbound Farms being two of its most consistent partners on the organic acreage for the past two decades. “It was quite a learning curve, but we were able to figure it out. As I look back, I realize that growing spring mix was as easy as it got,” he said, indicating that there are a lot more challenges growing other organic crops.

Smith said the age-old question, is it more expensive to grow organics has a nuanced answer. “Yes, it is, but how much more depends on the commodity and the location.”

He noted that you have to pick your battles wisely. Growing organics in an area or during a period when there is heavy pest pressure is a difficult proposition. He added that timing is also very important, noting that it is very difficult to get a great organic celery crop in the early winter in the desert, for example. That crop must be planted in August, when temperatures are scorching outside. He quipped that any buyers concerned about the quality of celery in December should spend a week with the young plants in the August desert sun and see how well they survive. “Organic celery can thrive in the desert but it’s a January through March crop,” he quipped.

Smith revealed that some commodities and locations are tailor- made for the organic effort and do very, very well with no concern about decreased yields. He indicated that the company has become expert at growing organics, and it no longer focuses on the yield vs. return calculations that had to be part of the discussion in the early years.

Smith relayed that JV Smith Companies’ growth in the sector mirrored the adoption by retailers. In those early years, natural food stores and Whole Foods supplied much of the excitement and sales opportunities. He recalls that when Costco determined it was not going to concede that piece of the pie to those retailers, demand kicked up to another level. It received another boost in Smith’s recollection when the Walmart group decided it wasn’t going to concede those sales to Costco.

JV Smith followed suit by increasing its acreage devoted to organics on an annual basis. Initially, the category saw double digit growth. Today, the veteran farmer said there is still sustained growth, but it has moderated because the base has risen significantly.

Looking back on the early years, Smith said “I like to think we brought some professional expertise to organic farming in areas such as soil preparation, bed preparation and irrigation techniques. At the same time, we learned a lot about growing a crop. It was amazing what we could achieve using less inputs, and so little nitrogen.”

Among the topics that will be explored during OGS are indoor farming, growing and selling organics in the Mexican market, triple net sustainability, agtech in the field, challenges of scaling organic production, organic ag inputs, and marketing prospects and consumer trends for organic produce.

Matt Seeley, co-founder and CEO of the Organic Produce Network, which produces OGS, said the organic grower community is enthused about getting together again after having to take a year off in 2020 because of the restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are truly excited that we are able to partner with Western Growers to bring the industry the Organic Grower Summit,” he said.  “Western Growers is noted for its emphasis on high tech and we are looking forward to two days of discussing the latest and greatest innovations that can help organic growers achieve success.”

Seeley said there is a great lineup of sessions ranging from food safety to new innovations, but surely a highlight of the event will be the presentation of the Grower of the Year award to Smith. “Vic Smith is one of the most innovative and progressive growers in our industry. He is a grower’s grower!”

The OPN CEO pointed out that there will be several Western Growers leaders and innovators taking part in the show. He drew particular attention to a session on the challenges of scaling in the organic sector. “We have a dynamic panel with Rod Braga of Braga Fresh Family Farms serving as the moderator. The panel will include organic pioneers from Homegrown Organic Farms (Scott Mabs), Lakeside Organic Gardens (Dick Peixoto) and Del Rey Avocado (Jessica Hunter). All four of these companies have been very successful building robust organic programs. For any grower in the organic space or exploring entry, this is a must-see presentation.”

Further information about the show can be found at the show’s website: organicgrowersummit.com.

WG Staff Contact

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