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Q&A With the Inaugural Organic Grower Summit

The organic industry is surpassing its “burgeoning” status as demand races ahead of supply and stipulation. To help write the playbook, Organic Produce Network’s Founding Partners Tonya Antle and Matt Seeley have teamed up with California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) to sort out the innovations and information funneling down all sides of the industry through the first-ever Organic Grower Summit, hitting Monterey, California, December 13th and 14th. After all, the most difficult decision is usually deciding where to begin.


 Tonya Antle
Co-Founder and Executive Vice President, Organic Produce Network

Q1. What is the goal and vision of the inaugural Organic Grower Summit (OGS)?

TA: There has never been a better time to create an event with a focus exclusively on the organic farmer. The goal of the summit is to provide an engaging and interactive forum for organic farmers to become more successful in order to meet the growing demand for their products, now and into the future.

Q2. With the summit right around the corner, can you reflect on the motivations that brought this show to inception and the need you are hoping to fulfill?

TA: We are seeing a radical transformation in the organic farming industry. From sensors and software that help farmers improve margins, to big data and apps that allow farmers to make more informed choices, there has been an explosion of startups and innovators who are disrupting how organic food is produced, distributed, sold, and consumed. The Organic Grower Summit is positioned as a go-to event showcasing the latest tools and services through education and information.

“As our industry continues to grow, the exchange of ideas and information through education is paramount to the continued success of organics.”
- Tonya Antle

Q3. In designing the show and its content, how are you hoping the OGS will stand out among like trade shows? How will you differentiate?

TA: Through conversations that create positive disruption. Matt Seeley and I have been involved in this segment for decades, so we know the issues and opportunities that need to be brought forward and discussed. We know that smaller, more intimate events provide better networking and information exchange than larger, less personal events. To that end, we are striving to put on a high-quality event bringing together the leaders of the organic production community to share their ideas for the future of this growing industry.

Q4. What are some of the key components of the inaugural OGS, and why did you identify these specific areas?

TA: We have placed a very heavy and significant importance on education. As our industry continues to grow, the exchange of ideas and information through education is paramount to the continued success of organics. Our industry is evolving very quickly, with tremendous strides made in technology, seed development, packaging innovation, and healthy soil amendments. We want attendees to walk away from OGS with ideas and information they did not have before the event.

Q5. What message do you have for attendees and exhibitors as we approach this inaugural event?

TA: Organic means good business. The most recent data has the U.S. organic produce category hitting $15.6 billion in sales, growing 15 percent from last year. We have just started to scratch the surface of how big organic fresh produce can be in the years to come. By working together–producers and their service and supply chain partners–we can shape future generations to understand the benefits of organic production, while providing healthy, safe, and nutritious fresh produce for consumers across the globe.


THE SPEAKERS

To bring all the pieces together, the organizers of OGS have assembled a roster of keynote speakers that hit all aspects of organics: the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s Brian Leahy, Vitalis Organic Seeds’ Erica Renaud, Duncan Family Farms’ Arnott Duncan, and Pacific Ag Rentals’ Bartley Walker.

 

Brian Leahy
Director, California Department of Pesticide Regulation

Q1. As we ramp up for OGS, why do you believe this type of event is important to the industry and to your work in this growing industry?

BL: We have been working with UC IPM on pest control, not only in organics but the whole gamut. Pest pressures will always exist in society, and we are always challenged in how to keep them at bay. I am looking forward to interacting with many of agriculture’s most innovative growers and technological innovators and challenging them to advance organic pest management; I was one of the original organic growers where we had to use only crop rotation because there were no options. Now, organic growers are in much the same boat as conventional. But I don’t hear from the organic community on how to help them navigate the resources we can offer to meet all the requirements they need.

Q2. With your involvement as a panelist for OGS, what are one or two key points you want to emphasize to attendees at the first Organic Grower Summit?

BL: A chemical approach is important, and we want to look into integrated pest management, crop rotations, and the bigger picture in many ways. How do we get pest management to such a science that drift is eliminated, and only the areas that need pesticides are applied?

Pest management and pesticides are an insurance tool, they are how you reduce your loss to acceptable levels. The higher the value of your crop, the higher the risk, and a lot of organic production is in higher value crops that have fewer tools than conventional. To expand that, organic growers need to work with the university, with us, and with the government.

To meet society’s dual demands of a plentiful, reliable, and affordable food supply within a low risk pest management production system, growers and innovators must constantly make advances in integrated pest management. They need to develop and adopt innovations in technology that make that challenging paradigm possible.

Q3. What lies ahead for organic fresh produce–where do you see the industry in five years?

BL: The future looks bright, you better get your sunglasses out! We still have some discovery as far as what the government’s role is in bringing about this challenging paradigm of a low-risk food supply system that is also plentiful, reliable, and affordable. The challenges are strong, and I think the organic industry really needs to come together on how we are going to achieve pest management. When you ask how many CCF growers use pesticides; almost all of them do. But, organic growers have not yet organized around that issue and I think it’s time they research and form partnerships, and I think we might see that in the next five years.

  

Erica Renaud, PhD.,
Seed & Food Systems Expert/Strategist, Vitalis Organic Seeds

 Q1. Why do you believe this type of event is important to the industry and your work within it?

ER: As the market demand grows, growers need to optimize best practices while staying true to the principles of organic agriculture. In order to achieve this, they need access to resources that support scaling-up with certified organic inputs, knowledge of available technologies, and how to adapt these products and technologies to their production systems.

Q2. What are one or two key points you want to emphasize to attendees at OGS?

ER: Plant genetics bred and selected to be adapted to the unique requirements of organic agricultural production systems can optimize the yield and quality of the ultimate product grown. Through the optimization of professional organic agricultural practices, combined with attention to consumer market trends, the organic agricultural community can contribute to supplying sustainably-grown, nutritious, quality-driven produce.

Q3. What lies ahead for organic fresh produce in the coming years?

ER: Consumer demand for nutritious, flavorful, and unique produce that is sustainably produced will continue to grow. We need to be committed to these drivers as a sector and stay true to the principles of organic agriculture. Transparency and integrity of the production system and value chain will be key to the future of organic produce.

 

Arnott Duncan
Owner & Operator, Duncan Family Farms

 Q1. As we ramp up for the Organic Grower Summit, why do you believe this type of event is important to your work and the growing industry?

AD: I enjoy the opportunity to exchange ideas and collaborate with people who share our same challenges and opportunities. It’s always better to work as a team, and events like this create a location for us to meet and learn together.

Q2. With your involvement as a panelist for OGS, what are one or two key points you want to emphasize to attendees at this first summit?

AD: I think we all know that organics have moved well beyond being a fad, so we need to always monitor and be aware of the new regulatory environment of our segment of the industry. We must be the educators who make sure all agencies, from federal to local, understand who we are and what we do. Additionally, I think it would be prudent to reach out to all of our suppliers to let them know how fast organics are growing and that the market will support their R&D programs for the types of production inputs that help us compete in a global marketplace.

Q3. Where do you see the organic industry in five years?

AD: I think our industry will continue to expand and grow, creating unique opportunities for farms of all sizes and types. We have a great message to share with those who are interested in us and our products, and we enjoy an ever-increasing ability to communicate with them.

Bartley Walker
President, Pacific Ag Rentals

 Q1. As we ramp up for OGS, why do you believe this type of event is important to the industry and your work in this growing area?

BW: The OGS is an important step in the right direction to provide a unified front of forward minded individuals, collaborating, and discussing equal and unique concepts, while understanding that we are all trying to pull the same rope in representing the organic community. The organic community is typically a fragmented group of smaller farmers and ranchers with a few larger players, and I believe that the OGS provides a flat platform to lift the community as a whole and not just benefit those at the top. Larger, consolidated, conventional farmers and ranchers tend to keep their “best practices” to themselves and rarely share those ideas with their competition. The organic industry tends to buck this trend by openly sharing new ideas and concepts that will move the segment forward.

Q2. As a panelist for OGS, what are one or two key points you want to emphasize to attendees at the first summit?

BW: One key takeaway would be to emphasize the fact that this is your organization and you will get out of it what you put into it. Donate some time to help your fellow growers and ranchers, have conversations with other attendees that you don’t know, get comfortable with your community, and work together on ideas that will move the organization forward. Ten minds are a lot smarter than one.

As for my business, Pacific Ag Rentals (PAR) is poised to help the smaller, less capitalized farmer or rancher by providing access to the latest equipment, implements, and technology on a short term rental basis. Ownership is overrated. As equipment becomes more complex and mechanics are tougher to find and labor continues to disappear, many farmers and ranchers are turning to renting as a way to meet their short and long term equipment and technology needs.

Q3. What lies ahead for organic fresh produce–where do you see the industry in five years?

BW: In five years I see the organic marketplace representing 10 percent of overall market sales. The demand will continue to grow for organics and with advancements in technology, will continue to expand across the U.S.

This takes tenacity and funding, and sometimes that still turns up as a loss. Our organization needs to continue to work with the UC system on research and push for increasing our state and federal funding for these research projects. The larger chemical companies are all adding a biological side to their businesses that will produce organic solutions. This trend will continue. Gaining the attention of the larger chemical companies and having them realize that organics are not the enemy is a crucial step in advancing the sector.

The consumer dichotomy exists where the buyer wants the benefits and flavor of the organic product, but the unblemished appearance of conventional; when that divide is closed I believe organics will be the go-to item in all households, as it is in ours.


 

As organics ride the fast track in expansion, innovations, and cutting-edge technologies to meet its rising popularity, the upcoming Organic Grower Summit is primed to become one of the next necessary events on the produce calendar. Coming out strong with a lineup of experience and innovation for the expanding industry, I can’t wait to see all the pieces come together.