With 1,200 attendees, a sold-out trade show floor of 150 exhibitors, interesting farm tours, and informative educational sessions, the 2021 Organic Produce Summit once again brought together the organic fresh produce community in Monterey last week.
“It was a great show, and we were so happy to celebrate our ever-growing segment of the produce industry in person,” said OPS President Susan Canales.
Susan Canales, President, Organic Produce Summit
Kicking off the keynote session on Thursday morning, Canales offered a giant “thank you” to OPS exhibitors, sponsors, and the retail community for their support following a year’s hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic. She marveled at the size of the crowd, and the excitement and enthusiasm of attendees during the two-day event.
Interviewed after the curtain fell on the always-busy trade show on Thursday afternoon, OPS Founder Matt Seeley was equally ecstatic and expressed gratitude to everyone involved in making it happen. The event, Seeley said, speaks to the resiliency of the fresh produce industry and especially to those who trade in the organic sector.
“It was a great show, and we were so happy to celebrate our ever-growing segment of the produce industry in person.” -Susan Canales
“It was so great to see everyone here enjoying themselves, conducting business, and once again meeting customers, suppliers, and colleagues face to face,” said Seeley. “And we walk away with retailers and exhibitors excited about OPS 2022 to do this again during our normal July timeframe.”
Like many other events, the Organic Produce Summit was cancelled in 2020 and delayed for two months this summer because of the continuing impacts of COVID-19. Organic industry members donned their masks and came out in force for OPS 2021, and comments from attendees proved they were delighted by the opportunity to connect live and in person.
“I’m super happy to see this many industry professionals getting together,” said retailer Michael Schutt, director of produce and floral for Raley’s in Sacramento, CA. “The sessions were really good, but for me it’s all about these collisions that you make throughout the couple of days here. It [gave] us an opportunity to talk about our challenges and bond as we discussed how we made it through the year. It is now my favorite show.”
“It was so great to see everyone here enjoying themselves, conducting business, and once again meeting customers, suppliers, and colleagues face to face.” -Matt Seeley
Tony Freytag, executive vice president at Crunch Pak, Wenatchee, WA, was equally effusive. “Look down the aisles. … It’s wall to wall people. This show was very important this year to get out and see people. Many of us are competitors, but we’re also one big family,” he said. “This show is so good for us because we do a lot of organics, and the organic buyers are here. Some retailers have the same buyers for conventional and organics, but others have dedicated organic buyers, and those buyers are at this show.”
“The sessions were really good, but for me it’s all about these collisions that you make throughout the couple of days here. It [gave] us an opportunity to talk about our challenges and bond as we discussed how we made it through the year. It is now my favorite show.” -Michael Schutt
The event kicked off on Wednesday morning, September 15, when scores of retailers and other industry colleagues were treated to one of three tours at some of the organic produce industry’s best examples of companies that combine traditional farming with modern technology. Braga Ranch in Soledad, Driscoll’s in Watsonville, and Taylor Farms in Salinas served as the three venues for the extensive morning tours.
OPS attendees at the Braga field tour
“The Monterey venue for OPS is no accident,” said Seeley. “This gives retailers and buyers from around the country the opportunity to get a firsthand look at the current state of organic production. There is no better place in the country to bring the organic industry together than the cradle of organic fresh produce production.”
OPS has built a reputation for its high-level educational sessions, and 2021 did not disappoint.
CEA education session featuring panelists Paul Mastronardi, Philip Karp, Marc Oshima and led by Walter Robb
A double educational session exploring CEA (controlled environment agriculture) garnered a lot of interest, as it looked at the high-tech process of indoor and vertical growing from a production viewpoint as well as what it means for retailers and consumers.
Former Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb moderated the sessions and guided two panels through a minefield of subjects, including the controversy surrounding CEA and its certified organic status as well as the definition of the practice and predictions as to how fast it will grow.
“There is no better place in the country to bring the organic industry together than the cradle of organic fresh produce production.” -Matt Seeley
On the latter topic, Robb opined that the growing CEA category, which now accounts for about 1 percent of fresh produce production, could climb to 10 percent by 2030. Some panelists were even more optimistic, with the most bullish among them believing it could top 25 percent within a decade.
Paul Mastronardi, Mastronardi Produce
Paul Mastronardi, President of Canadian-based Mastronardi Produce, defined CEA as “everything but open field farming.” In the broad category, he puts growing under plastic in a field under the same umbrella as vertical farming in a LED-lighted warehouse. He noted the concept is an effort to control the elements or a portion of them by using aids such as a greenhouse or plastic hoop in the field, a practice Mastronardi has been engaged in for decades.
The issues related to what is considered organic focus more on the activities of companies like Aero Farms, a producer growing crops in warehouses without the use of soil. It is that lack of soil that causes traditional in-the-dirt organic farmers to argue against the organic certification.
“Look down the aisles. … It’s wall to wall people. This show was very important this year to get out and see people. Many of us are competitors but we’re also one big family.” -Tony Freytag
While the panel did touch on the certification topic, it focused much, but it focused much of its attention on the future of CEA regardless of whether the resulting crops are certified organic or not. While most of the panelists believe CEA has a bright future, Frances Dillard, director of marketing for Driscoll’s, did question the marketing potential of CEA to consumers. She contended consumers are focused on other attributes of fresh produce, with flavor leading the charge. As such, much of the value proposition of CEA—that it can be environmentally friendly and uses less resources—is lost on the consumer.
Panelists Robby Cruz, Heather Fuller, and Ricardo Crisantes
Other topics explored during the morning educational period included the future of e-commerce. This past year, which saw exponential growth of direct-to-consumer sales fueled by the pandemic, is well documented, but does it have staying power? The panelists examined the question with the basic consensus being that e-commerce has come into its own as a legitimate competitor for the consumer’s produce dollar.
Another educational session examined opportunities and obstacles for fresh produce in a post-COVID world. The panelists again covered the spectrum from field to store and had interesting insights into how consumers are currently responding in a post-pandemic environment.
Keynote presenter Jim Donald, moderated by Kevin Coupe
The two keynote sessions focused on what the organic industry can do to continue double-digit growth.
Current Albertsons Co-Chairman Jim Donald discussed his career in the supermarket business with moderator Kevin Coupe of Morning News Beat. The two discussed the ever-changing retail landscape and how to navigate that road moving forward. Donald believes organics have a great story to tell and urged the producers and retailers in the crowd “to go where you’ve never been before. Future of organics has never been brighter.”
Keynote presenter Larissa Zimberoff
A proponent of storytelling to get one’s message across, Donald gave many examples of his own use of the storytelling marketing tool to sell his agenda over the years. He said your audience will remember the story long after they forget the data that you used to quantify your point.
Another keynote address was given by investigative reporter/author Larissa Zimberoff. She is an advocate of organic produce and is not enamored with the Impossible Burger and other meat alternatives that are receiving huge amounts of start-up money from the investor community.
Organic foods, she said, have a better story to tell and should be positioning themselves against companies using high-tech non-organic plant-derived proteins. She gave the crowd several suggestions as to how they should position organics in the marketplace.
“Pay attention, track the trends, and adapt,” Zimberoff advised.