OPS delights with record turnout
The seventh version the Organic Produce Summit saw record crowds, interesting educational sessions and two back-to-back keynotes addresses: one addressing the environmental crisis created by wasted food and the other taking a thoughtful look at the future of food marketing from a retail perspective.
Though the program itself stood out as the top takeaway from the July 12-13 event in Monterey, CA, just how big the show has grown since its inception in 2016 and the ever-increasing significance of the organic produce section deserves mention. This show featured almost 1,900 attendees, 300 retailers and in excess of 160 exhibitors. The buyers, exhibitors and other attendees represented a who’s who in the fresh produce industry. In fact, representatives from one longtime conventional Salinas, CA, area grower and shipper, who will remain unnamed, were seen at the show that has a main focus on a product category in which they do not participate. “We haven’t gotten into organics,” said one of the reps, “but everyone else is here, including many of our customers.”
When queried many exhibitors admitted unabashedly that this is their favorite show. The vibe at the 2016 show was almost tangible as many veteran organic produce growers, shippers, sellers and buyers were exhilarated to be at a show for the first time ever that was solely focused on their specialty. In each of the shows over the years, there has been a common thread of excitement and amazement of how far the sector has come. Many of the attendees were in the organic produce business before there was a USDA certified organic label and a federally regulated National Organic Program. Others are brand new to the game and equally excited. The vibe evident at the first show still exists.
Perhaps one measure of the success of OPS were the comments of Stephen Paul of Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA, that there might need to be a limit on attendees. Paul has come to all the summits and believes that OPS is a perfect show for the HOF team. He also loves the Monterey location and called it “magic” as it brings the organic produce sector together to the Salinas Valley region, arguably the heart of the U.S. produce industry. But Paul said the show has gotten tremendously popular with the aisles loaded, making it challenging to connect with everyone you want to see. “Maybe there should be a lottery,” he opined, putting forth a proposition that will be difficult to sell to most attendees on the buy or sell side.
The 2023 OPS began on Wednesday morning, July 12, when scores of retailers boarded busses head for three different organic farming operations in the Salinas Valley: Braga Fresh, Driscoll’s and Earthbound Farms. These are among the standard bearers in the organic farming community and the eye-witness reports were of high-tech, innovative farming and processing techniques in berries and row crop vegetables. As the evening cooled and the sun set in the Pacific, attendees were treated to an opening reception with the overflow crowd foretelling the packed show aisles on the following day.
Educational sessions on controlled environment farming, sustainability compliance, new National Organic Program enforcement rules and a retail perspective on the category filled the morning time slots on Thursday, July 12. Additionally, there was a star-studded class of athletes and health professionals featured in a two-hour session exploring plant-based diets. Olympic cycling medalist Dotsie Bausch, National Football League linebacker Derrick Morgan and fitness coach Ella Magers were among the headliners. They each spoke of personal triumphs as they used healthy diets to power their athletic success.
Ryan Begin, CEO and co-founder of Divert, kicked off the 90-minute keynote session as he outlined his journey from college graduate looking for a career to an expert and advocate in the wasted food arena. His two-fold mission involves greatly reducing food waste for the betterment of our environment and improving the value of food, while also using inedible food to produce clean energy.
He noted that 63 million tons of food goes to landfills annually, representing about one-third of the U.S. food stream. “There is only 17 years of landfill capacity left,” he said, referring to existing landfills.
Begin started tinkering with wasted food, and through trial and error came up with a food recovery system. His proof-of-concept facility was built in Compton, CA, in conjunction with Kroger Co. He called Divert a wasted food company, which initially took 40,000 pounds of wasted food from Kroger’s Southern California stores on a daily basis to create a liquid slurry that could generate power. The alternative was to have the food decay in landfills emitting methane gas, which is one of the worst pollutants in our environment.
Divert has taken that initial blueprint and built other food recovery systems around the country. The company recently broke ground on a huge facility in the Central San Joaquin Valley city of Turlock, which will take food waste from multiple retailers.
As a business proposition, Begin said Divert helps retailers run their operations better by handling their waste stream in a much more efficient manner. Long term, the company believes that the best solution is to eliminate waste at retail with better management of the food chain and the expectations of consumers. Begin noted that retailers could double their profits if they eliminated waste.
The second keynote address featured a panel of three innovative retailers largely discussing the organic sector and ways to grow the category. The panel discussion was moderated by Kevin Coupe of the Morning News Beat and featured Grocery Outlet’s Director of Produce Daniel Bell, Sonya Constable, who is vice president of produce for Sprouts Farmers Market, and the founder and CEO of Misfits Market, Abhi Ramesh.
Bell called Grocery Outlet a deep discounter that searches for spot buy deals for its produce department every day and does not use the contract buying approach. The retailer offers the shopper “a treasure hunt” model, in which the customer can stroll the store and look for a new bargain every day.
Misfits Market was founded as a direct-to-consumer retailer, via the internet, with no brick and mortar stores. The buyers work with suppliers to find imperfectly good produce and other grocery items that might go to the landfill if not put in commerce. The result is discounted items, marketed as imperfect food. In addition, the shopper is working toward a better universe by eliminating this food from the waste stream. The company’s offerings are data-driven and consumer-focused as it uses its data to give consumers what they want.
At Sprouts, produce is at the heart of its business and located in the center of its store, according to Constable. She said the produce department in general deserves the spotlight and that the organic sector does over-index at this ever-increasing retail operation.
During the discussion with Coupe, each retailer discussed ways in which the produce shipper community can help them do a better job for the consumer. Bell asked suppliers to get ahead of the curve and offer deals early in the week when Grocery Outlet still has time to make the buy and deliver the product to his stores before the weekend. He understands the idea of offering the best deal as the week wears on and the shipper’s inventory builds up, but he reiterated that an early-in-the-week deal can result in better dividends for both the shipper and the retailer.
He added that aggressive pricing is a strategy the organic shipper community might employ more frequently to build sales, noting that it is common practice on conventional produce.
Constable noted that Sprouts is a national retailer but it can react to opportunities as if it was a small local chain. She asked suppliers to contact the chain when they have opportunities even if they are not large enough buys for the whole chain. “We are still small and nimble,” she said, even if discounted buy is limited in volume.
Consistency of supply was a theme that surfaced several times during the panel discussion. Constable said nature plays an important role in the supply situation but when there are going to be gaps, advance lead time allows Sprouts to work on creating alternatives for consumers. She specifically noted that sweet corn had quality issues for the Fourth of July weekend, which caught the chain unaware.
All three retailers want more information from their suppliers, which they can use to educate consumers. Bell said the produce industry doesn’t do a very good job of educating consumers about produce. He said better and more information throughout the supply chain gives retailers a good opportunity to educate their customers. “We need to communicate better. Try to get ahead of the curve,” he said.
Ramesh pointed to a specific example involving the purpling that occurs on broccoli. He said the purple coloring doesn’t impact quality or taste, but consumers do not know that. “How do we educate consumers,” he asked. “There is an education gap.”
He added that the ability to tell the story of fresh organic produce in an effective way is one of the keys to increased sales. He noted Misfits Market is a digital operation, which gives it the opportunity to communicate directly with consumers. “We have a massive story-telling opportunity,” he said.
Constable said Sprouts has a defined plan for its future, but it does not know much about the plans of its suppliers. “We need to be in lock-step to grow together,” she opined.
All three retailers had an interesting viewpoint on the pandemic, noting that it did help teach consumers about the realities of supply chain issues. Ramesh said it forced consumers to rethink their shopping lists. They had to make tradeoffs and switch from one item to the next when the shelves were empty.