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Growers, firms gather at organic summit

Conference in Monterey, Callif., to include SOE deadline update, industry outlook.

Tim Hearden

November 28, 2023

5 Min Read
Walt Duflock
Walt Duflock, Western Growers’ senior vice president of innovation, will moderate a keynote panel discussion on the state of the organic industry Nov. 30 at the Organic Grower Summit in Monterey, Calif.Western Growers

Hundreds of organic producers and the businesses that cater to them are gathering this week in Monterey, Calif., for the sixth annual Organic Grower Summit, featuring two days of discussions related to production.

The summit opens Wednesday morning. Nov. 29, with a session on the upcoming federal deadline to meet requirement changes for organic certification. Other sessions will cover topics such as pest management, production challenges and technological advances.

The summit, sponsored by the Organic Produce Network and Western Growers, will include a trade show and also honor a long-time organic grower and industry leader, Rod Braga, president and CEO of the Soledad, Calif.-based Braga Fresh.

Braga will receive his Grower of the Year award as part of a keynote educational program Nov. 30 that will cap off presentations at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa.

The gathering “will provide up-to-date resources and information to support the continued success of organic producers, with an emphasis on the changing organic production landscape, as well as the role of ag technology," said Matt Seeley, CEO of Organic Produce Network. “From seed to soil to harvest, our goal is to present the most relevant and timely information on the most important subjects and issues facing organic production."

Related:Session to prep organic growers for deadline

Here is a rundown of the educational sessions featured at this year’s summit.

Wednesday

SOE deadline: Are you ready? With the federal government raising the bar for organic certification beginning next March, industry representatives will seek to help producers and handlers navigate the changing regulatory landscape.

The 8 a.m. presentation will revolve around the Strengthening Organic Enforcement Rule finalized by the USDA’s National Organic Program earlier this year. The rule beefs up certification requirements throughout the supply chain, with a compliance deadline set for March 19, 2024.

John Foster, chief operating officer at Wolf & Associates and a former member of the National Organic Standards Board, will moderate the 2-hour discussion.

Understanding production challenges: An 8 a.m. interactive workshop will offer insights into research by the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and the University of California’s Organic Agriculture Institute.

Workshop attendees will hear from a panel of organic farmers and researchers about the value of farmer knowledge networks and the benefits of researcher-producer collaborations.

The value of AI: The explosive interest in artificial intelligence in agriculture continues to impact all facets of the growing process—from crop-yield predictions to soil monitoring to autonomous robots. The 10 a.m. panel how AI and machine learning are providing data-driven insights and forecasts for specialty crop markets.

Related:Organic produce sales edge up again

Regenerative – What does it mean? The 10 a.m. session will examine the relationship between regenerative and organic agriculture. A panel of industry leaders will examine how companies are defining the relationship and discuss trends and the outlook for the future.

Thursday

Meet the AgSharks: In an 8 a.m. panel discussion, three startups that got to pitch on stage at the Western Growers Annual Meeting will present at OGS as well. These companies – Provision Analytics, Climate Robotics and Cultiva -- have been identified as key innovators in the fresh produce industry and attendees will learn how these advanced technologies can help organic growers.

Challenges of organic seed production: The 8 a.m. presentation will provide an overview of how organic seed production has declined over the past few years and how this has been impacting the organic produce industry.

Ag tech challenges and opportunities: The 9 a.m. session will explore how growers are using tech to improve production, and how one company is working to develop alternatives to traditional farming methods.

Sustainable pest management: The other 9 a.m. offering will feature three industry experts discussing the ins and outs of organic pest management. The experts will discuss California regulatory agencies’ recent document, the Roadmap for a Sustainable Pest Management Future, which builds on established integrated pest management with a broader consideration for environmental protection, human health, social equity and economic vitality.

State of the industry: Capping off the conference will be a 10:15 a.m. grower roundtable titled “The State of Organic Growing,” moderated by Walt Duflock of Western Growers and featuring Joe Pezzini of Taylor Farms, Nishan Moutafian of Driscoll’s and Briana Giampaoli of Live Oak Farms.

The session – the final keynote event of the conference -- will explore how the three leaders in organic production are dealing with hot-button topics including supply chain issues, inflation, labor, sustainability, innovations and technologies.

Duflock recently told Farm Press he will discuss how technology is having a positive impact on organic growers.

“I think it’s worthwhile for people to attend for a couple of reasons,” Duflock said in October. “For growers, it gives them a chance to get two days of content that is focused on organic growing practices and innovations.

“For startups, it gives them a chance to get in front of growers and have a conversation about how their solution can help improve the grower’s operation,” he said. “They are happy to talk to media and investors, but the main target audience is usually growers that grow organic and conventional product.”

Grower of the Year: Braga’s award will cap off the final session. A third-generation grower, Braga leads an organization that features multiple large-scale growing, processing and shipping locations in California.

The award will be presented to Braga by Cale Sledge, regional sales director of AGCO Corporation.

More optimism

While OGS speakers in 2022 were telling attendees not to panic over a softening of consumer demand, the outlook this year may be more encouraging. The sales and volume of organic produce nationwide from July through September increased by 2& and 1.9%, respectively, from the same period last year, according to a recent report from OPN and Category Partners.

Sales for the third quarter of 2023 topped $2.44 billion and volume movement was at 733 million pounds, marking the second straight quarter of year-over-year growth.

California accounts for 36% of U.S. organic production, and organic sales in the state increased 16.4% to nearly $14 billion in 2021, according to the 2021-22 California Agricultural Organics Report. The growth occurred despite a 13.1% decline in organic harvested acreage, the state Department of Food and Agriculture notes.

A registration table for the conference opened Tuesday and will remain open throughout. Cost is $495 for general attendees, $395 for Western Growers and California Certified Organic Farmers members, or $295 for Nov. 30 only.

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