Organic produce industry united at OGS
This year's Organic Grower Summit, held in Monterey, CA, Dec. 1 and 2, featured a plethora of educational sessions as well as the two-day trade show, which saw scores of exhibitors showing their latest innovations to hundreds of growers that operate in the organic sector.
During the closing general session, longtime organic veteran Tonya Antle, who founded the OGS and the Organic Produce Network with co-founder Matt Seeley, pointed out that California was the perfect location for bringing the organic industry together. She revealed that 40 percent of all organic fruits and vegetables sold in the United States are produced in California, which has seen its organic acreage grow to the 10 percent of the state’s total farming acreage.
During that closing session Vic Smith of JV Smith Cos. in Yuma, AZ, was honored as the 2021 Grower of the Year.
Smith was cited for his 40-plus year agricultural career, which has been punctuated throughout with innovation in all aspects of farming, including joining the organic revolution more than 25 years ago. Smith credited longtime colleague Israel Morales Sr. for helping the company figure out how to farm using organic practices. He noted that in the early years the company learned a great deal about farming with fewer inputs from small organic farmers while he believes it was able to bring some professional expertise to the sector in areas such as soil and bed preparation, and irrigation techniques.
This was the fourth OGS as the inaugural event took place in 2017, and the 2020 meeting had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Western Growers served as the presenting sponsor and was instrumental in helping to present a robust educational program. WG President and CEO Dave Puglia moderated the closing session that featured three dynamic young growers who are helping to lead their generations-old California family farms down the organic path.
Keith Barnard of Mission Produce, Bianca Kaprielian of Fruit World and Mike Valpredo of Country Sweet Produce discussed the future of agriculture, including organic farming, during the hour-long conversation. It was clear that each of these next generation ag leaders are taking a different approach from their farming ancestors as sustainability and transparency are guiding principles in their operations. Though they admit that there are many challenges in production agriculture – not the least of which are issues with labor, water, regulations and inflation — each expressed a great deal of optimism that the future is bright for their generation and the one coming along next.
Another fascinating educational session had four well-known grower-shippers discussing their transition to organic production and how they were able to scale successfully. Moderator Rod Braga of Braga Farms led Jessica Hunter of Del Rey Avocados, Scott Mabs of Homegrown Organic Farms and Dick Peixoto of Lakeside Organic Gardens in a discussion of the opportunities and challenges in the organic sector. While they all expressed a passion for utilizing organic farming methods, each of these California producers was also clearly driven by the marketing opportunities organics offered.
Hunter initiated Del Rey’s foray into organic production with a 10-acre grove in North San Diego County. She learned how to coax yields from that grove equivalent to what it could produce conventionally and loves teaching these techniques to many other growers in the area. She said growing organic avocados makes great sense if you can achieve equal production because the market price is typically significant higher.
There were also many sessions focusing on organic production. One session explored farming practices employed by organic growers to build their organic matter of their soil. Though the use of hydroponics and other growing materials is approved for National Organic Program certification for the purpose of marketing the output, the generations-old farming concept is rooted in the soil, with traditionalists often arguing that if soil isn’t involved it can’t truly be organic. This session delved into the benefits cover crop implementation and diversification have to offer farmers and the planet.
Another session looked at how ag tech is bringing farming, including organic farming, into the 21st century. After a couple of entrepreneurs discussed the nuts, bolts and advanced technology of the autonomous robotic machines their respective companies are building, Triangle Farms President and General Manager Josh Roberts explained why farmers are leaning into these potential breakthroughs. He said securing sufficient labor is the number one challenge for farmers. “Labor Replacement is our goal,” but he did caution that there are often trade-offs when adapting new technology. For example, he said an autonomous weeder replacing dozens of workers is great but it also requires the elimination of drip tape and the use of other more labor intensive irrigation methods. “Whenever you lean into technology, be careful,” he warned. “You have to continually evaluate its value.”
On the other hand, he said farmers that are not open to the use of new technology will be left behind.
Still another session looked at both growing organics in Mexico and selling certified organic product in that market. The session included Joshua Tamayo, who is the food safety and quality assurance manager at the Taylor Farms processing facility in Mexicali Valley in Mexico. He noted that almost 50 percent of the production of that facility is organic with much of it sold for sale in Mexico. Tamayo said the demand in Mexico for organic produce is on the rise, but it presents challenges. He reported that both certification of organic production and the labeling that must be used on organic product sold in Mexico is more strict than it is for U.S. production and sales. Nonetheless, he said sales of the Taylor Farms spring mix salad pack in Mexico has increased more than 80 percent in the past year.