Dec 9, 2020
Organic produce leaders’ roundtable touches on industry challenges, bright spots
Organic Produce Network

Leaders from three of the largest and most respected organic fresh produce companies agree that the outlook for the organic industry is positive heading into the new year, as they explored a wide range of issues during the Organic Grower Summit Roundtable discussion that premiered today.

Moderated by Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers Association, the roundtable featured Bruce Taylor, president of Taylor Farms/Earthbound Farm; Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas; and Vic Smith, president of JV Smith Companies.

Puglia kicked off the discussion asking the three leaders about the effects this tumultuous year has had on the industry and what things might look like in 2021.

After a couple months of “extreme anxiety” following the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Smith said his company, which is a major grower of leafy greens, was able to “shift gears” and adjust to the lack of foodservice demand and the increased demand at retail.

Taylor, whose company sells to foodservice, deli, and retail, said that at the start of the pandemic, foodservice demand “went to zero,” with the deli segment following suit a little later. While increased retail demand helped offset these losses, Taylor noted that the differing types of demand among the segments caused some issues.

“The quick-service restaurants consume quite a bit of iceberg lettuce,” said Taylor. “And so the demand pattern shifted. … We’re going, ‘Oh, what the heck? What do we do now with all this product?’ And so we had about a $70 million pile of vegetables out there to work through in a 10-week period of time. And our team did a nice job doing it – but that was a huge challenge. And so even today, the challenge is, what do I plant?”

Bjorn characterized the early days of the pandemic as “pretty worrisome. We were throwing berries away in April,” he said. “But by the time we got into the summer, it’s been really, really strong.”

Going forward into 2021, Bjorn said Driscoll’s volume will be influenced by decisions they made last spring when the outlook hadn’t seemed as robust (berry production is planned about a year in advance).

“We were not very aggressive back in April in our thinking, and that’s probably going to come back to haunt us a little bit in 2021,” he said. “There’s really nothing we can do to increase the supply for next year. Ideally we would have, but that should make for, I suspect, pretty good markets in 2021.”

Noting that all three leaders have been in organics for a long time, Puglia asked them their thoughts on the sector’s place in the produce industry and how it’s evolved over the years.

Both Taylor and Bjorn remarked that large-scale organic farming is now critical to meeting consumer demand and to maintaining an economically viable business. “It takes large-scale agriculture in many cases to create those economies that can then reduce the price and increase the availability to people across the country,” Taylor said.

“If you don’t have the larger companies like ours … [organics] won’t be widely available. It will be for the few,” said Bjorn. “We think that it should be for the masses. And clearly the consumers are very clear – they want it to be for them. … They want organic to be part of a healthy lifestyle. And in the berries, it’s growing way faster than conventional – probably three or four times faster.”

Smith said he’s seen organic agriculture have a positive influence on conventional operations. “[It] taught us we’re putting a lot more fertilizer in the ground than I think we need because we were growing head lettuce using 140 units or 200 units of nitrogen for conventional. And we’re over there spoon-feeding this stuff in organic—not getting the full size but pretty close at about 80 units. And you go, ‘Wait a minute, do we need to use that much [in our conventional operations]?’ So I think it was a good perspective for us to understand what we were doing and how.”

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