David Weinstein is director of procurement for Heath & Lejeune, a Los Angeles-based full-line wholesaler of organic fruits and vegetables, and has worked at the company since 2006. Weinstein recently had a candid conversation with OPN to discuss trends in organic produce in 2021, labor shortages, the "return to normal" following the challenges of the pandemic, and where organic produce is headed in the future.
David Weinstein, Director of Procurement, Heath & Lejeune
What trends did you see for organic produce in 2021?
For better or worse, the market for organic produce has come to look like the market for conventional produce. That has meant that it has become more professional in every area—from seed varieties and cultivars to production, handling, storage, and sales. The industry has been quicker and quicker to adopt the latest equipment, technology, management techniques, economic models, and legal structures.
Organic produce moves in larger and larger volumes more and more efficiently to fewer and fewer receivers. More and more large national brands have embraced organic production and created their own organic brands. Organic has become a normal and accepted part of the everyday operation of the American food system.
"For better or worse, the market for organic produce has come to look like the market for conventional produce." - David Weinstein
At the same time, everything has become more fragile—more customers ordering at the very last minute or ordering ahead of time and then making major changes to their orders at the very last minute. There is a greater demand for specificity.
Commodities like bell peppers and hard squash that have been sold by volume now need to be sold by count. Transactions that used to be conducted verbally now need to be confirmed in writing. More warehouses require appointments to load or unload. Everyone is nervous. More people get their feelings hurt more easily. Attempts at humor have become unacceptably risky. Metaphor, irony, and sarcasm have joined profanity and vulgarity as inappropriate in the workplace.
Labor has been a front-and-center issue for all aspects of the industry. How do you see the lack of labor impacting the various facets of the supply chain?
With the shortage of workers, every form of last-minute ordering has become more difficult. Fewer and fewer warehouses have the labor capacity to work, recondition, repack, sort, clean up, or custom pack produce. Breaking cases has become unaffordable.
This past year saw a “return to normal” following the challenges of pandemic-laden 2020. How has this year been different than last year—in operations, supply chain, promotion, and sales of your products?
"Return to normal" has meant a return to an increasingly competitive, cutthroat sales environment with every competitor using every advantage to beat out their rivals. Larger, better-financed operators put more and more pressure on smaller operators. Margins suffer. And as usual, despite everyone's pious professions of respect, admiration, support, and devotion to the organic farmer, all of this has fallen hardest on the farmer.
There is less and less tolerance, for example, for generic boxes instead of pre-printed boxes. More buyers eliminate all but their primary vendor and one or two secondary vendors for each group of commodities. Larger growers buy out smaller growers, and REITs buy up agricultural acreage as a new speculative investment vehicle. Fewer trucks can afford to make multiple pickups or deliveries, and fewer buyers will pay for multiple pickups or deliveries.
"With the shortage of workers, every form of last-minute ordering has become more difficult. Fewer and fewer warehouses have the labor capacity to work, recondition, repack, sort, clean up, or custom pack produce." - David Weinstein
Looking ahead, what do you see in the future for organic produce?
There will be more buyouts by venture capitalists with no familiarity with agriculture. There will be more roll-ups and consolidation. There will be more operations leaving the organic market or cutting back acreage or having to sell organic crops conventionally. There will be fewer retail food co-ops, fewer small and medium-sized independent natural foods markets, the traditional drivers of organic sales. There will be fewer organic specialists at every level—from the farm to the distributor, wholesaler, and retailer.
More conventional retailers will continue to add organic foods to their lineup but among retailers with established organic programs, there will be more narrowing of space and selection. There will be a preference for mainstream labels over smaller, local, artisan labels and more focus on a few high-volume organic products instead of a full representation of a wide variety of organic products.
Is there anything else you’d like to share related to organic produce from the past year?
The organic movement was created by idealists, dreamers, visionaries, and advocates. The organic market is operated by money-hungry monopolists obsessed with growth, market share, and return on investment. Organic has become another product line to be promoted until all the life has been sucked out of it and a new category comes along to replace it.
If there is any interest in preserving the integrity and value of organic food and farming (and therefore the willingness of shoppers to continue to buy it), the marketers will have to take a back seat to those disreputable dreamers and their unreasonable demands. I do not see this happening, and so I look forward to the disappearance of organic food from the general marketplace and its return to the briar patch from whence it came.
"If there is any interest in preserving the integrity and value of organic food and farming (and therefore the willingness of shoppers to continue to buy it), the marketers will have to take a back seat to those disreputable dreamers and their unreasonable demands." - David Weinstein
Outside of the market, there is a new food movement growing. It envisions a food system truly sensitive to the onrushing climate catastrophe. It expects a food system in which transparency reveals rather than conceals the origin of food. It demands a food system free of racial, sexual, and economic injustice. It imagines a food system that enriches producers, their employees, their neighbors, and the land they steward instead of impoverishing them and enriches end-user communities by returning their wealth to them instead of extracting it and restores their health instead of destroying it.