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Vibrant trade show highlights OPS 2021

By
Tim Linden

Other than the ever-present masks, the throngs of people at the 2021 version of the Organic Produce Summit conducted business like it was 2019, with 1,200 attendees and 150 booths populating the large tent on the grounds of the Hyatt Regency in Monterey, CA, Sept. 15 and 16.

“We’re thrilled we were able to host a high energy event that brought together the organic fresh produce community.   There was obviously a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for our industry to come together and based on the feedback we are receiving, it appears OPS 2021 hit the mark,” said Matt Seeley, founder of OPS.  “We were able to gain valuable knowledge of front burner issues facing our industry, and network with industry leaders in the cradle of organic production---California’s central coast.”

The all-organics show had to skip 2020 because of the coronavirus and the 2021 show was moved from July to September in search of a safe window and venue.  They seemingly found that utilizing a huge tent that featured a natural breeze throughout the always-packed, four-hour trade show.

“This show is a great show every time,” said Marvin Quebec of Quebec Distributing in Oakland, CA. “I come to this show because you have to stay relevant. You can’t stand still. I’m a wholesaler; people aren’t walking by the door ordering. You have to get out there. At this show, I see all the same chiefs without 20,000 people in the way.”

Exhibitor Dominic Etcheberria, general manager of JBJ Distributing in Los Angeles, said the organizers hit it out of the park. “We love this show. We mostly sell organics now and we’ve seen a lot of customers, as well as a few growers, that we do business with. There have been fewer retailers than usual but that’s to be expected. The show has been upbeat and robust. What we love is it is focused on organics, and we can get a lot done in four hours.”

OPS was conducted over two days with grower-shipper tours and the opening reception highlighting the first day and educational sessions, two keynote addresses and the trade show filling up day two. The common refrain heard throughout the event was that it was great to be back with such a robust and enthusiastic group. And the attendees also seemed to embrace the safety measures put it place.  “This has been great. It’s like a huge reunion,” said Catherine Gipe-Stewart of Domex Superfresh Growers in Yakima, WA. “I’ve been to a couple of shows this year, but this is the biggest. The attendees are here from all corners of the United States. And it is great that it is all about organics. I think everyone has loved all the outdoor events — especially this year.”

Ranch tours at Braga Ranch, Driscoll’s and Earthbound Farms, each within an hour of the venue, kicked off the first day as the buyer community got a first-hand look at the modern production techniques and supply-chain protocols utilized by today’s technologically advanced organic producers.

Thursday, Sept. 16, featured the heart of the show with several educational sessions, two keynote addresses, an outdoor lunch and the aforementioned out-door trade show.

The first keynote was delivered by Larissa Zimberoff, an investigative reporter who took aim at the manufactured food industry in her recent book, “Technically Food – Inside Silicon Valley’s Mission to Change What We Eat.”

Zimberoff clearly takes issue with the plant-based food craze featuring foods built in a laboratory and thinks it is especially harmful to the organics movement. She noted that while organic produce is up 11 percent in the past year, plant-based food sales rose 27 percent.  While she likes the fact that this movement finally acknowledges that climate change is real, she believes these foods are not nearly as healthy as naturally grown organic produce.

She argues the makers of “The Impossible Burger” and the other meat substitutes are not living up to their promise of providing healthy alternatives. She said these “burgers” often feature saturated fats from coconut oil and contain very little input from the plant world. She added that they contain virtually no organic plants.

The journalist is particularly miffed that these companies have garnered millions, if not billions, in investment capital with the goal appearing to be making a fortune not improving the eating habits of consumers.

She told the organic producers in the audience that they need to “pay attention, track the trends and adapt.” She focused on several chapters of her book that advised true farmers how they can get in the game and attract investment dollars for their more-healthy organic production. One area she champions is what she calls “upcycling,” which uses food waste to create new products.  “Make organic upcycled foods,” she said, adding that one company is currently doing that with a product made from tomato waste called tomato jerky.

The second keynote address featured a discussion between Albertson’s Co-chairman of the Board Jim Donald and Kevin Coupe, who covers the retail sector with his online reports, Morning News Beat.

Donald noted that the retail business is changing exponentially and it’s tough to keep up. He likened it to trying to do a heart transplant on a cheetah while its on the hunt in the forest.

During his long career, Donald has been credited with turning around several different retail operations and his keynote was somewhat of a blueprint of how he achieved that success. First and foremost, he calls himself a storyteller and is a big proponent of using this method of persuasion to get your point across. He noted that long after a discussion is over, your audience will have forgotten the data you presented but will remember the relevant story you told.

He revealed that when he took over the top slot at Pathmark, he spent his first few hours in a warehouse talking to an employee who was a worker bee for that company.  The worker was not impressed, noting it was the first he’d seen an executive in the warehouse in his many years in the company and figured it would be the last time it happened. Donald made a point to return to that warehouse several times over the next couple of months and he said that story spread like wildfire, apparently earning him the respect of the workers and the ability to accomplish his task of turning around the bankrupt company.

He told the OPS audience if the only message he conveys to them on this day is the power of storytelling, he will have done his job. He added that the organic industry has a great story to tell and they should be out there telling it. He argued that the future of organics has never been brighter and urged those in the audience to take it to new heights: “no matter what size you are, go where you’ve never been before.”

He said those companies that embrace change will be the ones defining the future.

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