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OPN Connect Newsletter 238 · October 7, 2021

Industry Players Discuss COVID’s Impact on Organic Produce and Share Future Outlook


Moderated by Randy Riley, co-owner of GoldenSun Insights, OPS ed session "Opportunities and Obstacles for Organic Produce Post-COVID" covered a range of topics—the rise of e-commerce, sustainable packaging, the need for collaborative production planning, storytelling in the digital landscape, fair trade, and more.

The session featured three panelists: Robby Cruz, VP of produce for Target; Heather Fuller, VP of sales for Braga Fresh; and Ricardo Crisantes, chief commercial officer of Wholesum and board chairman of Fair Trade USA.

OPS 2024 Retailer Reg square

Riley kicked off the discussion asking Cruz what changes in consumer behavior he’s noticed over the last couple years and whether he expects them to persist.

“The change in drive up and pickup was tremendous for us,” said Cruz. “Last year, we … saw a 270 percent lift in that drive up and pickup. And then we actually cycled that with 50 percent lifts into this year. And so we don't see that really changing. … [E-commerce] is not a fad—it’s here to stay.”

On the grower-shipper side, Crisantes shared that COVID led to a high demand for packaged product, which he said was an about-face from the 2019 trend away from plastic.

“[E-commerce] is not a fad—it’s here to stay.” – Robby Cruz

Vitalis June 2024

Fuller said Braga also saw an increase in demand for plastic packaging, particularly for wrapped produce (e.g.,  wrapped versus bunched broccoli). And she noted a rise in sales of packaged salads as well, a trend she believes “will continue to be sustained.”

However, despite the increase in demand for plastic-packaged items throughout COVID, Crisantes said that there will be a need for more sustainable packaging solutions moving forward. “Organic clearly serves the conscious consumer, and as the crisis slows down, as COVID gets normalized, we're going to … have to answer to that consumer with a responsible package," he said.

Ricardo Crisantes, Chief Commercial Officer, Wholesum

Fuller agreed, saying Braga has been “mindful to keep our foot on the gas in terms of coming up with additional options for packaging with reduced plastics and recyclability. All of those things will continue to be important in the future,” she said. “And we're starting to see … those requests [for more sustainable packaging] come back already.”

“Organic clearly serves the conscious consumer, and as the crisis slows down, as COVID gets normalized, we're going to … have to answer to that consumer with a responsible package.” – Ricardo Crisantes

Cruz said Target is also keeping an eye to the future on this issue and has pledged to reduce virgin plastic in its branded packaging by 25 percent by 2025.

In terms of lessons learned from COVID, Fuller cited the need for a stronger alignment between growers and their customers.

Cal-Organic June 2024

“As growers, we have a tendency to look at our own planning, our production planning, what our sales plan is going to be,” Fuller said. “I think moving forward, we learned we really need to stay connected with our trading partners so that we understand what their goals are … so that we can be nimble and flexible and agile and deal with overproduction situations and … communicate our cost pressures and stable pricing together.”

Heather Fuller, VP of Sales, Braga Fresh

“As we learned going through the pandemic, forecasting is super important,” Fuller continued. “And the only way that we can get there is to really deepen those relationships with our partners to understand what the challenges are on both sides and to plan moving forward and to invest in the technology to do that.”

With the rise of e-commerce, Cruz said it’s now imperative that growers and retailers work together to succeed in the new digital landscape.

“As we learned going through the pandemic, forecasting is super important. And the only way that we can get there is to really deepen those relationships with our partners to understand what the challenges are on both sides and to plan moving forward.” – Heather Fuller

“As an industry, we have to relook at the way we go to business,” Cruz said, referring to the shift from in-store to online grocery shopping. “And we can't be working on it siloed. And when I think about from the grower side of the business and the retailer side of the business, sometimes we go about it siloed versus working together on what that solution looks like. And I think … the opportunity we have as an industry is let's be open and honest and work with each other on what [the shift to e-commerce] looks like as we move forward.”

OPS Retailer Reg leaderboard

Fuller said she believes produce companies “need to become better storytellers,” a theme that was later echoed in the keynote address by Albertsons Co-Chairman Jim Donald.  

“We have the best story to tell,” Fuller said. “We sell fresh produce. We sell medicine for your life. But as an industry, I think we haven't been the best storytellers. And I think an opportunity as e-commerce has taken a rise is using that digital space to tell our story. And we have to come up with better ideas to do that.” She suggested that in addition to social media, retailer e-commerce platforms are another place where produce companies can share information and stories about their products.

“[At Braga], we've spent a lot of time in the past year … focusing our time and resources on improving our digital marketing capability, making sure that we're providing our retail partners with the best data, the best images, telling our story online,” said Fuller. “All of those things become so much more important with your promotional capabilities because you aren't having people walk in your store.”

“We have the best story to tell. We sell fresh produce. We sell medicine for your life. But as an industry, I think we haven't been the best storytellers.” – Heather Fuller

For Crisantes, one of the biggest takeaways from COVID has been a greater appreciation of farmworkers, which is something he hopes will continue into the future.

Randy Riley, Co-Owner, GoldenSun Insights

“I think during COVID, there was a moment of clarity … that farmworkers are critical, and we depend on them showing up every day for our next meal,” he said. “I don't want to lose that clarity. … Actually, I want to amplify it. And I think one of the best ways to recognize [farmworkers’] effort is embracing the fair trade model, purchasing fair trade products that bring equity to the supply chain, that really recognize and honor that work that we depend on critically.”

As the session neared its close, Riley asked Cruz what his thoughts were on the future of organics in a post-COVID world. “Organics is going to continue to grow,” Cruz said. “It's going to continue to be one of our priorities to bring in. … We're going to continue to push organics at Target. It's going to be a big goal for us as we move forward.”

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