April 8, 2016

Teamwork Powered the Broncos… and Colorado Fruit & Veg Growers

On the heels of a dramatic Super Bowl victory for the Denver Broncos, an enthusiastic Robert Sakata, president of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (CFVGA) and owner of Sakata Farms, Brighton, CO, addressed the crowd at the organization’s second annual conference in true fan style.

Sporting a Peyton Manning jersey—complete with a bright orange wig and sunglasses to match—Sakata attributed the success of the Broncos to the tremendous teamwork they demonstrated during the season and throughout the playoffs.

In a similar manner, the CFVGA president credits the early achievements of the two-year-old association to the efforts of a core team of staff and volunteer leaders.  In order for the association to continue growing and being an effective voice for the Colorado fresh produce industry, he believes this spirit of cooperation must endure.

Emphasizing this point while waving a foam “Number One” finger around the room, Sakata stated that if we can work together as a team, the CFVGA “can accomplish things that we can’t accomplish on our own.”  He continued, saying that now is the time to join together because the agriculture industry is “such a small segment of the population, that if we don’t stand together, our singular small voices aren’t going to be heard.”

Amy Kunugi, CFVGA vice president and general manager of Southern Colorado Farms, Center, CO, shared the same message in an interview following the conference.  “I believe we are stronger and more effective in representing the Colorado fresh produce industry when we speak as one voice,” she said.

More than 300 attendees representing growers, government, academia and other industry supporters participated in the one-day event held at the Renaissance Hotel in Denver on February 17.  The agenda was designed to provide a range of educational and networking opportunities for CFVGA members and allied industry partners.

According to Marilyn Bay Wentz, executive director of the CFVGA, this objective was accomplished.  “The conference was packed with excellent information and quality speakers,” she said.  “The excitement and energy could be felt throughout the room.”

Following Sakata’s opening remarks, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown commended the fresh produce industry for organizing the CFVGA without direct financial assistance from his department.  He was impressed with the initiative demonstrated by the state’s fruit and vegetable growers to see a challenge—such as the need to organize behind a common voice—and tackle it independent of government involvement.  Commissioner Brown indicated that this will allow him to put the full weight of his resources behind other programs and services that will benefit the broader Colorado agriculture industry.

Next up was the keynote speaker, retired Major General Gary Dylewski.  The decorated U.S. Air Force veteran spoke in the context of his current role with Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preparing the next generation of Americans for success in the military and life.  According to Mission: Readiness, more than 70 percent of young adults cannot qualify for service in the military, with obesity playing a substantial role in this rejection rate.  Major General Dylewski used his time to talk about the importance of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy, active lifestyle, and the role Colorado farmers play in fueling our armed forces.

Lunch was buffered by two presentations on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and Colorado water policy.  Leanne Skelton and Elvis Cordova of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shared their insights on the creation of the new federal food safety rules and the subsequent guidance that is being developed to help growers and others along the supply chain implement these complex regulations.  Skelton and Cordova also discussed the role that CFVGA will need to play in disseminating this guidance to its members and the broader Colorado fruit and vegetable industry.

Retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs followed lunch with a presentation on the “ins and outs” of Colorado’s water policy.  Justice Hobbs shared his perspective on the water rights system in Colorado and the importance of maintaining the senior water rights that are currently held by many of the state’s growers.

The remainder of the afternoon was structured into a series of breakout sessions, which provided the attendees with an opportunity to network with industry partners, visit supplier exhibits and engage in open conversations with experts on subjects ranging from labor to nutrition to business development.

The conference concluded with a trip to the Governor’s Mansion for the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Ag reception.

In reflecting on the activities of the day and over the previous year, CFVGA President Sakata was humbled by the growth of the organization and the sustained support of its grower members and allied industry partners.  The turnout exceeded expectations and additional accommodations had to be made to hold the overflow crowd.

For Sakata, the success of the program was an indication that the CFVGA is “going down the right track and we just need to keep pushing forward.”

Bay Wentz echoed Sakata’s sentiments, stating that the organization “has made tremendous progress since its establishment in 2014 due to the hard work of the board of directors and ongoing support from industry sponsors and the Colorado Department of Agriculture.”

With the second annual conference in the rearview mirror, what does Sakata believe is in store for the coming year?  His primary goals are to maintain the momentum in membership growth and to continue strengthening the value proposition for CFVGA members.

In particular, Sakata highlighted his desire to build on the partnership established between the CFVGA and Western Growers.  Because of the mutual value these two organizations place in each other, an agreement has been reached where CFVGA members have access to a number of curated benefits offered by Western Growers, including educational webinars, human resources, legal guidance and insurance services.

Following the growing season, Sakata plans to hit the road in the fall to participate in the various events going on around the state with the goal of raising awareness of the association. “Ultimately, the CFVGA is here to serve the fresh produce industry and provide valuable benefits to all fruit and vegetable growers in the state,” he said.

Kunugi added, “The CFVGA represents a diverse cross-section of Colorado fruit and vegetable producers.  Regardless of geography, size or production type—organic or conventional—we need more growers to join the association so we can increase our influence among consumers and political decision makers.”

Like the Broncos, you can bet on Sakata and his team, which bodes well for an even bigger conference next year.