Adele Gemignani is part of the sales and business development team at Coke Farm, a certified organic grower-shipper and food hub based in San Juan Bautista, California. OPN recently caught up with Adele to learn about her background in the produce industry, Coke Farm’s organic produce offerings, the company’s desert program, and more.
Adele Gemignani, Sales and Business Development, Coke Farm
What is your background in the produce industry?
My first encounter with the produce industry was in 1997 when I worked in the accounting department at a place called Carriage House Fruit. From there, I went to United Organic Growers, a company that handled the product of multiple local organic growers in Watsonville, California. I was in sales, and I had as customers a lot of companies that are still around today. One was Melody Meyer with Source Organic. In 1999, she recruited me over as a rookie buyer. Shortly after I started, Albert's Organics acquired her company, and later UNFI acquired Albert’s. I spent 17 years between that trifecta of companies, and for six of those years, I ran the buying office. After UNFI, I worked at Sunbasket for a couple years.
When did you start working at Coke Farm, and what led you to take a position there?
Over the course of my career in produce, I often worked with Coke Farm, so I knew the family— Dale, Christine, Madelene, and Olivier. Because I believe in everything they stand for and have been such a strong supporter of their vision and mission, they felt I would be a natural fit for the company and offered me a sales and biz dev position, which I started two years ago.
What is the history and mission of Coke Farm?
The story behind Coke Farm is Dale Coke, of course. He started in 1981 on a quarter acre of land, and he wanted to prove that you could grow organic and be successful. His first crop was organic strawberries, and he later expanded to other specialty crops. He was the very first CCOF-certified farm in our region—#001!
Our mission is to enable the growth and success of small family farms while taking into consideration the environment. We only grow and sell organic—and we have no intention of ever deviating from that.
"The story behind Coke Farm is Dale Coke, of course. He started in 1981 on a quarter acre of land, and he wanted to prove that you could grow organic and be successful." - Adele Gemignani
What commodities does Coke Farm offer, and how many growers do you work with?
We have over 120 different commodities, and about half of those are specialty items. Some of our most popular specialty items include artichokes, sunchokes, spring onions, spring garlic, dandelion greens, frisée, radicchio, Treviso, shallots, and Meyer lemons.
We currently work with over 80 organic growers who farm in San Benito, Santa Clara, Madera, Merced, Santa Cruz, and Monterey Counties. And last season, we added a desert program as well. Ninety-five percent of our growers are minority- and family-owned farms, and half of our growers are graduates from ALBA, an organic farm incubator and training organization based in Salinas. So we deal with a lot of half-acre new growers and hopefully help them grow into successful multi-acre growers.
We have had a heavy focus on the grower model for the past 15 years. We are now getting to see the long-term success stories, including Coke Farm itself, which is currently celebrating 40 years as a certified organic grower. This is a very rewarding piece of what we do.
"Our mission is to enable the growth and success of small family farms while taking into consideration the environment. We only grow and sell organic—and we have no intention of ever deviating from that." - Adele Gemignani
Can you describe your customer base and distribution area?
Our customer base is about 50 percent wholesale distributors and retail chains and 50 percent institutions, foodservice, processors, home delivery, and CSA boxes. We sell all throughout the US and up into Canada. Some of our oldest customers include Whole Foods, Veritable Vegetable, Charlie’s Produce, and Organically Grown Company.
You recently started a desert program, which is now in its second season. Can you tell us about that?
Historically, Coke Farm had a quiet time during the winter because our local climate's too cold and wet to grow certain items or to grow some items in large volumes. But some of our growers have land in Southern California and Bakersfield, so we decided to start a desert program.
From November through March, we grow product out there, and then we bring everything here on-site. It gets our eye on it; we handle it; we ship it. It’s a nice niche for our Bay Area distributor and retail customers because it takes them two to three days to load out in the desert and bring it back, but with our desert product in our San Juan Bautista cooler, they have a one-day turnaround.
"Ninety-five percent of our growers are minority- and family-owned farms, and half of our growers are graduates from ALBA, an organic farm incubator and training organization based in Salinas." - Adele Gemignani
What kinds of items are you growing in the desert, and how has the program been going so far?
We are focusing on core commodities, including broccoli, cabbage, celery, cauliflower, bunching greens, and herbs like parsley and cilantro. The program is going well. The challenges are the markets coupled with labor, water, supply chain, and fuel costs.
In 2021, the average FOB price was a lot lower than the previous year. With COVID, the markets were through the roof. What happened this past year was a lot of growers planted more, and so there was more production than demand. The markets were really stocked—it was industry wide. Now, if you go back to 2019, you have more steady pricing. But comparing 2021 pricing to 2020, it was way down.
"In 2021, the average FOB price was a lot lower than the previous year. With COVID, the markets were through the roof. What happened this past year was a lot of growers planted more, and so there was more production than demand. The markets were really stocked—it was industry wide." - Adele Gemignani
Does Coke Farm only sell product under its own label, or does it sell under other labels as well?
Most of what we sell goes under the Coke Farm label. There are a few growers we work with that have their own label—but it's a very well-recognized label—and they don't just grow for us.
We also have a buy-sell program that's separate from Coke Farm. It's where we'll bring in added-value items that are not our label. We offer this program because sometimes people want other items that we don't have. So we'll carry things like kiwi, potatoes, onions, apples, and citrus—it's all based on requests from our customers. We do this program through Charlie’s Trading Company and other grower-shippers. As with our Coke Farm product, everything in the buy-sell program is organic.
What kind of trends have you noticed in the organic produce industry in recent years?
Sustainable packaging is a big one. Consumers want individual grab-and-go packaging, but they want it to be compostable to get away from plastic. I’ve also noticed—this past year especially—that people want to know where their product is coming from. There’s more of a focus on: Who's the grower? Is this item mass produced? Is it grown in Mexico? Or is it from this small family farm that has five acres of land in San Benito County? Consumers increasingly care about the process, the people, and the stories behind their food.