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A Bellwether of Change

A Bellwether of Change

"The Tex-Mex corridor is essential to making sure consumers have plenty of fresh produce to fuel their new and healthier lifestyles."

This is the bottom line, Craig Slate, President and Chief Executive Officer of SunFed and Chairman of the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA), tells me as we reflect on the adventure that we call 2020.

Craig pauses to cast a wide gaze at the possibilities of 2021, and I ask him how he plans to address all the uncertainties of the new year. His response surprises me.

“From a platform of a specific certainty, actually—that Texas and Mexico are not only relevant but crucial and imperative in our vision to address the integrity and vitality of the supply chain,” he reflects.

There are many advantageous words associated with the Texas International Produce Association, but the one I lean into most often is integrity. With all the dynamics and politics of a whirlwind year, let alone the past few years, it is incredible to watch a region pivot and rise to the occasion, time and time again. And it is doing it once more with the upcoming Viva Fresh Produce Expo 2021, slated for March 26–27 at the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas.

The event will include both in-person and virtual components that offer solutions for all attendees, addressing the challenges of today in real-time and executing the vision with some of the most innovative minds at the table. In order to bring more ease to these great minds, safety will be imperative, Craig says.

“The Tex-Mex corridor is essential to making sure consumers have plenty of fresh produce to fuel their new and healthier lifestyles.”

Craig Slate, President and Chief Executive Officer of SunFed and Chairman of the Texas International Produce Association

“This year, the Board’s attention has been focused on safety and attendee confidence. As the first in-person produce conference since the pandemic restrictions began, we know we are the bellwether for in-person events, so it’s crucial we get it right,” he remarks, adding that the 2021 model will provide in-person elements similar to the traditional Viva Fresh Produce Expo, which include the tradeshow, golf tournament, reception, and buyer speed meetings.

For the virtual resources and platforms at the Viva Fresh Produce Expo, the Clean Eating Challenge, In Bloom, Aggies-for-Fresh, and educational components will take to the digital stage and afford many the comfort of attending while also being able to practice personal and mandated safety protocols.

“Viva Fresh has been such a great event since its inception. At the heart of the event every year is a focus on innovation and health. This March will be no different. I’m anxious to hear from the Clean Eating volunteers and can’t wait to meet the next group taking the 2021 challenge. These folks are all so inspiring and show how more fresh produce in your diet can deliver some amazing health results,” Craig reveals. “What better place than Dallas and the Gaylord Resort to bring the industry together and kick off Spring 2021?”

An exclusive industry pool, that is. That exclusivity factor of this event is not only by design but driven by necessity, as the Viva Fresh team will be limiting the number of attendees per company as part of those new safety protocols.

“The industry is craving safe, in-person experiences—a foundational element of how we do business. The health and safety of our attendees, from exhibitors to retailers to staff, is our number one priority. We will implement new safety protocols in order to meet in a safe manner. This year, the Board’s attention has been focused on those concerns and attendee confidence,” Craig expresses. “While we are more advanced and adapting technologically more today than ever before, we are a business of comradery, handshakes, and sweat equity. This event may not promote the traditional handshake as we know it, but there is nothing like standing across from your partners and customers to really solidify one of the facets that fresh produce thrives on: relationships.”


Bret Erickson, Senior Vice President of Business Affairs, Little Bear Produce

“I’m so excited to be talking about Viva Fresh again! Our team has been hard at work developing the framework for a premium hybrid event that I believe will exceed the expectations of buyers and suppliers. We have developed some really unique strategies to help ensure that Viva Fresh continues to deliver an impeccable experience for attendees, while also offering a safe event that will keep attendees happy and healthy. Now more than ever, these intimate regional shows will continue to provide relevance for those looking to zero in on developing new business opportunities. The fact that we will be able to offer both in-person and distance educational sessions, as well as virtual speed meetings for buyers and suppliers and safe one-on-one interactions at the event, should provide an extraordinary experience for attendees.”

Joseph Bunting, Produce Business Director, United Supermarkets

“We are looking forward to the Viva Fresh Expo for 2021. The virtual shows have been great, but there is still nothing like meeting partners and future partners face to face. This show offers so many opportunities to strengthen current relationships and build new ones as well. The association also does a great job of keeping up with the latest trends and looking ahead at future possibilities. The new location in Grapevine, Texas, will make the show more convenient to attend, too. I can’t wait to see what the 2021 Viva Fresh show has to offer this year!”

Dave Corsi, Vice President of Produce and Floral, Wegmans

“Our team is more selective than ever in choosing which events we participate in, and we’ve found Viva Fresh of value every year. Not only is it an excellent opportunity to meet new suppliers, but it is also our time to check in with existing suppliers and visit with a few of our Texas-based partners while we’re there. Now more than ever, we are excited to stay connected and continue to grow the business of fresh.”

Ed Bertaud, Director of Retail Sales, IFCO

“The amount of planning and financial commitment that goes into executing an event such as Viva Fresh is extraordinary in the most ordinary of times. Under the current circumstances, it is a challenge to say the least. We are encouraged by the response we have received thus far for this year’s event. Sponsors, attendees, and exhibitors alike continue to see value in the Viva Fresh Expo and are counting on us to provide as safe an event as possible. Suffice to say, we do not take the charge lightly and look forward to providing a successful hybrid—in-person/virtual—event!”

Tommy Wilkins, Director of Sales and Business Development, Grow Farms, Texas and Board Member, Texas International Produce Association

“What we grow is good medicine, so promoting it—especially during this time—is essential in the trade and to the consumer. For the 2021 show, we are utilizing a Retail and Foodservice Advisory Board to develop an event that meets the needs of buyers and suppliers. Sprinkle in a little Texas hospitality and you get Viva Fresh. For more than 45 years, I have had the privilege of making a living in the fresh produce industry. This show brings together the formula that has molded my success by bringing the supply-side and the buy-side together. Spotlighting the Texas-Mexico corridor has been one of the greatest goals of my life, and I am proud to have served on the steering committee since day one, working diligently as the Chair of Sponsorships. We look forward to a safe and much-needed show in Dallas!”

April Flowers, Marketing Director, Lone Star Citrus

“We are so looking forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues at Viva Fresh 2021. Because Viva Fresh is a smaller, more intimate show, we really enjoy the expanded opportunity to make valuable, new connections with buyers who are looking for suppliers from our specific region. Beyond the connections, the educational sessions and presenters are always top-notch, so every member of our team benefits from their time at the show.”

Brent Erenwert, Chief Executive Officer, Brothers Produce Houston/Houston Cold Storage

“The Viva Fresh Expo is the picture-perfect experience of what a trade show should be, from the exhibitor to the end user. I am looking forward to the 2021 show. I was very disappointed to not be able to attend Viva Fresh last year as it’s the only trade show I attend!”

Viva Fresh has always been an event where friends can reunite and new relationships can be formed.

“This year’s event will look very different from past years, but we will not abandon the pillars that have made our show the valuable experience it is to attendees. Top of mind will be education on the Tex-Mex corridor, the importance of health from eating this region’s fresh fruits and vegetables, and, of course, the interactions between buyers and suppliers in a smaller, more intimate format,” shares TIPA’s Chief Executive Officer, Dante Galeazzi. “In a year where health and wellness meant more to our society than perhaps ever before, we could not be stronger believers in the core of our mission and sharing that message with our industry.”

The Viva team hopes to provide a space where people can foster those relationships that have been years in the making, and in a safe manner.

Additionally, TIPA shortened the time of the expo from three days to two while, as mentioned earlier, keeping outdoor activities such as the golf tournament and moving some of its popular events to virtual. The team will also be enforcing a mask mandate and social distancing guidelines while at the show.

While the gravity of the day’s issues—from COVID-19 to international politics—weighs heavily, it is always a comfort to know that one thing is clear: our ability as an industry to impact increasing fresh produce consumption, education, and technology remains.

“Fresh produce is always a go-to in challenging times. It is the best nutritional return for your dollar. This past year, the importance of health took a major leap forward with things like Peloton® and produce both serving as vehicles for healthier lifestyles,” Craig says with a smile. “Growers are still growing, and people are still eating. We must reinforce the need for fresh produce to make it from point A to point B. The Texas-Mexico corridor is even more important now as our industry has had to pivot and learn to do business differently.”

This region, which encapsulates the state of Texas and some of the most varied and rich microclimates in Mexico, offers one of the most diversified produce portfolios in the U.S. Everything from avocados and bananas to tomatoes and zucchini cross through, or are grown in, Texas.

“Having all these items, several of them year-round, arrive via trucks to the center of the U.S. provides a huge value and multiple benefits to everyone in the supply chain, especially the end consumer,” Craig adds. “This is our calling. This is where we must put our personal politics to the side and do a greater service.”

I admire this strength of will and firmness of purpose of Craig and the growers in this essential region, especially in a time that requires our ultimate flexibility. But, as Craig reflected earlier, in times of uncertainty, we can lean on one unwavering certainty: Texas and Mexico not only have a seat at the table, they are helping to serve. 

A Bellwether of Change