Texas International Produce Association operating on all cylinders
Heading into the 2022 version of Viva Fresh, the Texas International Produce Association is perhaps stronger than it has ever been in its close to 80-year history.
Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the organization, said membership is at a high point, the association has robust programs for its younger and female members, and forecasted attendance at its annual Expo is at pre-pandemic levels. Speaking to The Produce News three weeks before the opening of Viva Fresh, he said the 200 exhibit booths have been sold out and the 2,100-2,200 conventioneer slots were also close to being filled.
“We think it’s pretty fantastic,” Galeazzi said at the end of March. He noted that the Expo had to be canceled in 2020 and came back in 2021 as a smaller format show because of COVID-19 restrictions and precautions. “We had about 1,200 in attendance last year, which was our maximum. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but we are right where we want to be.”
He credited the success to the input from exhibitors, retailers, foodservice operators and attendees, and TIPA’s flexibility to “build a show that our stakeholders want.”
Through outreach via phone, surveys and stakeholder committee meetings, Viva Fresh is checking all the boxes and providing value to attendees. Galeazzi revealed that the show’s size, both in terms of exhibitors (200) and attendees (about 2,100), is perfect and is where they want to stay. “We pride ourselves on providing a relaxed atmosphere that allows people to meet together with who they need to see without being overwhelmed.”
The TIPA executive explained that as shows grow larger, they become more frenzied and it’s difficult for attendees to make the connections they came to make. He vowed that Viva Fresh is not headed in that direction. He did allow that this year there is much greater participation, partly because of the attitude that a level of normalcy has returned, and they will reach their maximum numbers. He noted that in 2021, most attendees came from Texas, but this year all of North America, including Canada and Mexico, are answering the bell and coming to the event.
From its outset, Viva Fresh has been an international show emphasizing the fresh produce trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico. Galeazzi said it is great that partners from both Mexico and Canada will be in full force at Viva Fresh 2022, which is being held in Grapevine, TX, near Dallas, on April 21-23.
Though the TIPA staff and board had their collective hands full getting ready for Viva Fresh, Galeazzi did pause to update the industry on some great initiatives the organization has launched. Two grassroots efforts — In Bloom and Y-TIPA — are serving specific constituents within the organization, helping them make connections in the industry and foster the relationships that are vital to a successful produce career.
In Bloom, he said, involves the women of TIPA — the female produce professionals that are members of the organization. The group had its first meeting in 2019 with nearly 100 participants. After a COVID-19-required hiatus in 2020, it came back with a smaller event in 2021 and will hold its next meeting at Viva Fresh with a sold-out crowd. He said In Bloom has had several connections during the past three years, including a dinner and educational activities, such as a resume building event.
Y-TIPA, which was designed to serve produce professionals under 35, had a July 2021 kickoff with 80 attendees. It has sold out its Viva Fresh event and has two more scheduled meetings for later in the summer in different parts of Texas to expand its geographic reach.
Galeazzi said both groups were started by members who wanted to get together with their own peers. He believes that the from-the-ground-up effort is what has made them successful. “Hopefully other niches in our industry will also come forward and want a specific program developed for their group,” he said. “There are plenty of niches in our industry that we can serve but it needs to come from them and not from the board.”
He noted that TIPA has 380 member companies, which is about 25 percent more than its traditional average. He added the growth has been spurred by many activities, but none more important than the ever-growing produce trade between Mexico and the United States. Ten billion dollars’ worth of produce crosses the border from Mexico into the United States annually with the majority of that coming through Texas. “There are lots of different commodities and they come all year long,” he said.
More than a decade ago, TIPA began focusing its efforts not only on produce grown in Texas but also the fruits and vegetables that come through the border and are sold and warehoused in Texas. That concentration has led to the development of many new focal points, including the seemingly never-ending concern with border issues. Galeazzi said the biggest issue is to make sure the agencies involved in the crossing of fresh produce — U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Department of Agriculture — have enough staff and infrastructure to do the job in a timely manner. He said staffing has been an ongoing issue as volume has increased but there are efforts and federal funding to address the issue.
TIPA is also helping as it has created an agricultural internship program with CBP and local universities that expose college students to CBP careers. He said it has helped CBP recruit inspectors and staff for other positions.
Turning his attention to the Rio Grande Valley crop that formed the foundation for TIPA’s roots in the 1940s, Galeazzi reported that the Texas citrus industry is alive and on the mend. A devastating freeze, which hit around Valentine’s Day of 2021, resulted in a crop of only about 30 percent of average for this 2022-23 season. “Next year, if the weather holds and gives us nothing crazy like a hurricane, we should have a crop that is 60-70 percent of average,” he said. “And then for the 2023-24 crop year, we should be back to 100 percent.”
Galeazzi said this spring will see a lot of replanting and rehabilitating of citrus groves as growers assess their trees one year after the freeze. He said it is difficult to tell how a tree reacts to freezing temperatures until it goes through the following season, and you can accurately see how much fruit it actually produced.
In terms of crop trends, he said there has been an increased amount of land devoted to watermelons, and onions made a good market comeback this year, but not quite to the extent growers were hoping.
The top external issue on TIPA’s playlist is no different than the rest of the country. “A lot of people are keeping their eye on transportation rates,” he said. “They were very high last year and appeared to be coming down a bit and then the Ukrainian war pushed fuel rates up, and truck rates are back up again.”
While this is a major concern and certainly adds to the cost of doing business, Galeazzi said it also points to the geographic advantage of Texas as a place to source produce. “We can get anywhere in the United States in four days (by truck) and anywhere in Canada within six days.”