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OPN Connect Newsletter 188 · October 15, 2020

Lonnie Gillespie Named Chief Organic Officer of Farm Fresh Direct


In what may be the first title of its kind in the fresh produce industry, Lonnie Gillespie has been promoted to the position of chief organic officer (COO) of Farm Fresh Direct, a large grower and shipper of both organic and conventional potatoes, headquartered in Monte Vista, Colorado.

Farm Fresh Direct President/CEO Jamey Higham told OPN Connect that the move is emblematic of both the importance of organic potatoes to the company’s growth and Gillespie’s value to the firm. “It’s so appropriate to elevate Lonnie to this new C-suite leadership role in our organization,” he said. “It’s a reflection of the critical work she has done in developing our organic program. Her leadership has been key at every step, from working with growers in the fields to inspiring our sales team to consulting with our customers.” 

Jamey Higham, President/CEO, Farm Fresh Direct

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Higham said organic potatoes have performed very well for the firm over the last several years with Gillespie focusing on that category. He said the company continues to increase its organic production, noting that growing organic potatoes is very difficult but Farm Fresh Direct has honed its process and is helping many of its growers transition to that production method.

“It’s so appropriate to elevate Lonnie to this new C-suite leadership role in our organization. It’s a reflection of the critical work she has done in developing our organic program. Her leadership has been key at every step, from working with growers in the fields to inspiring our sales team to consulting with our customers.”  -Jamey Higham

He allowed that as the category has grown, double-digit growth is difficult to maintain, but both demand and production continue to increase. “It represents about 9 percent of our production,” Higham said, adding that the production percentage fluctuates because potatoes are a rotation crop, and two of his largest growers are on the same rotation. That means one year they have a lot of acreage in organic potato production followed by a year with less acreage in that crop.

Lonnie Gillespie, Chief Organic Officer, Farm Fresh Direct

Continuing to praise the work of his new COO, Higham added: “Over the last several years, Lonnie has been a leader and advocate for our organic potato program, working with our team to generate record sales for our customers and increase returns for growers. In both our private label and branded products, Lonnie has the knowledge and vision to continue to develop organic leadership in the potato category.”

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Of her new position, Gillespie said, “I’m thrilled and humbled to take on this important leadership role for organics here at Farm Fresh Direct. We’ve proven to our customers that organic potatoes can deliver strong sales. We see organics as being a driver of potato-category volume gains in the coming years.”

Both she and Higham told OPN Connect that they have not heard of anyone else in the industry carrying the chief organic officer title. “A number of customers have called me to congratulate me, and no one so far has heard of anyone else with this title. I may be the first,” she said.

“I’m thrilled and humbled to take on this important leadership role for organics here at Farm Fresh Direct. We’ve proven to our customers that organic potatoes can deliver strong sales. We see organics as being a driver of potato-category volume gains in the coming years.” -Lonnie Gillespie

Gillespie notes that national retail scan data shows that growth rates for total organic potatoes have lagged recently due to supply shortages.  “One of the challenges for the potato industry has been consistency in the supply of organic potatoes. Developing reliable, top-quality supplies of organic potatoes has been critical in building trust with our customers to expand retail distribution and leverage consumer demand,” she said. 

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Farm Fresh Direct has been successful in growing its own acreage in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and in the Klamath Basin of Northern California near the Oregon border. Higham said the company also sources from outside growers to make sure it has a year-round supply of russets, red, and yellow potatoes. Gillespie said its various production sources do allow the company to come close to a year-round organic supply of all three colors, but there can be a gap. 

Lonnie Gillespie, Chief Organic Officer, Farm Fresh Direct

In fact, this season, she said there has been a small gap in the late August/early September period. Speaking to OPN Connect in earlier this month, she said volumes that would allow for promotional pricing on organic potatoes would come later in the month as the new crop of potatoes are harvested in several locations including Colorado and the Northwest.

“One of the challenges for the potato industry has been consistency in the supply of organic potatoes. Developing reliable, top-quality supplies of organic potatoes has been critical in building trust with our customers to expand retail distribution and leverage consumer demand.” -Lonnie Gillespie

She added that one of Farm Fresh Direct’s strengths has been its private label program. “According [to] the Nielsen data, over the past year, 55 percent of all organic potatoes sold at retail in the U.S. were sold in private label packages.  What’s even more impressive is that total organic potato volume has been flat while private label volume jumped by 8.1 percent.  The Farm Fresh Direct private label organic program has been leading growth for our retail customers.”

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She said that organic potatoes are a high-volume category poised for rapid growth at retail, reiterating that a big part of the industry challenge has been just growing enough product. “With expanding availability of organic potatoes here at Farm Fresh Direct, we think it’s very reasonable to expect significant volume growth over the next few years. We look forward to putting together plans with our retail partners to make that happen.”

Farm Fresh Direct organic PotatOH

Higham added, “Organics have been among our highest priority segments for Farm Fresh Direct. That’s due in large part to the retail growth generated by Lonnie in working closely with the Farm Fresh Direct sales team as well as our retail and wholesale partners around the United States. Our organic production continues to climb, and we believe having Lonnie in this key leadership role positions Farm Fresh Direct to better help our customers accelerate organic sales growth.”

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