OGS Delights & Serves Organic Community

From ag-tech presentations to continuing education classes for crop specialists to a dynamic keynote session featuring the next generation of organic growers to a trade show teeming with innovative farming solutions, the Organic Grower Summit checked all the boxes as the premier event for organic fresh produce production last week in Monterey, CA.

The two-day Organic Grower Summit (OGS), presented by Western Growers and Organic Produce Network (OPN), featured a sold-out trade show of organic produce supply chain and service provider partners and a series of informative educational sessions exploring a toolbox full of solutions to help organic growers solve some of their most vexing problems. Additionally, Vic Smith, CEO of JV Smith Companies, was recognized for his leadership and commitment to organic growing, as the recipient of the fourth annual "Grower of the Year" award, presented by Greg Milstead, Director, NA Distribution Performance of AGCO.

“This year’s OGS was an amazing two days of education and networking for those in the organic fresh produce industry,” said Tonya Antle, co-founder of the OPN. “We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback on the educational part of our program, and the OGS trade show floor reaffirmed that the organic fresh food industry is evolving rapidly, with tremendous strides in technology, new biological tools, and the latest in packaging and product services—all with the goal of making organic farmers more effective, efficient, and profitable.”

A series of eight different educational sessions featured a wide array of topics for organic growers. In the "SmartFarm: Ag Tech in the Field" session, a pair of companies touted their use of robotics to help automate labor-intensive farming practices. Sebastien Boyer, CEO of FarmWise, said the company has 12 autonomous weeders that were in use all summer in the Salinas Valley and are now in the Yuma area providing weeding services at a cost cheaper than hard-to-get manual labor.

“We are solving the labor issue and accumulating data,” the FarmWise co-founder said, promising that companies will be able to use their data in many beneficial ways. Growers were able to see the high-tech FarmWise Titan machine as well as other technologically advanced equipment at the show.

During that same tech session, Gabe Sibley of Verdant Robotics reported how his firm’s “ground-based robotics” have been able to digitize the complete growth cycle of a crop and then utilize the data to perform cultural tasks precisely and automatically. The company started with apples and is now moving on to other crops. It leverages the power of digitization and combines it with robotics to help a grower produce a better and bigger crop.

Another ed session focused on growing and selling organics in the Mexican market. The big takeaway from this session was that it is not easier—in fact, it is harder due to more regulations—to grow an organic crop in Mexico and put a consumer label on it. Representatives of Taylor Farms, JV Smith Companies, and Divine Flavor relayed the challenges they face in growing and/or marketing organic produce on both sides of the border. Session moderator Maria Barajas, Spanish service supervisor for CCOF Certification Services, said US produce industry members should have a high degree of confidence that certified organic produce from Mexico meets and typically exceeds US organic standards because Mexico regulations are often stricter.

In "Organic Grower Perspectives on the Challenges of Scaling,” leaders from Lakeside Organic Gardens, Homegrown Organic Farms, Del Rey Avocado, and Braga Fresh discussed the challenges and opportunities involved in building a large-scale organic operation. Scott Mabs, CEO of Homegrown, noted that increasing organic production and becoming a significant player involves “a lot of trial and error. There are no short cuts.” 

Jessica Hunter, vice president of operations for Del Rey Avocado, said her company sells about 30 percent of California’s entire organic avocado crop. The company has come a long way since she started farming organically two decades ago with a 10-acre grove, and, moving forward, she expects organic avocados will take a large slice of total avocado production as yields are remarkably similar to conventionally grown avocados, and the grower gets a premium for the fruit. Hunter said helping other growers transition their land and learn from her experiences is what drives her.

Another highlight of this year’s event was the presentation of the "Grower of the Year" award to longtime and well-respected agriculturalist Vic Smith. Always an innovator, Smith revealed during the award presentation that he was first introduced to organic farming decades ago at an EcoFarm conference at the Asilomar State Beach & Conference Center in Pacific Grove, CA.

The group, Smith said, was composed of small farmers that had an inherent dislike for large corporate farming operations, which included JV Smith Companies. He took what he learned from that event back to Yuma and over time has become one of the biggest contract growers of organic vegetables, supplying some of the larger shippers in western agriculture.

Smith started growing organic crops for Earthbound Farms and PIM International about 30 years ago and continues to add to the company’s organic footprint each year. Farming is demanding work, he said, but extremely rewarding, quipping that while the ups and downs are exhilarating, it might help to be “bipolar.”

The educational part of the program concluded with a keynote presentation featuring a trio of younger growers—each with a family history in California agriculture—sharing their thoughts on getting into the business and what the future of the industry might look like. Moderated by Dave Puglia, CEO of Western Growers, the panel included: Keith Barnard, Senior Vice President of Sales and Sourcing for Mission Produce; Bianca Kaprielian, CEO and Co-Owner of Fruit World; and Michael Valpredo, President and Co-Founder of Country Sweet Produce. The panelists talked about their individual paths and current challenges and were optimistic about the future growth of organic sales and production.