Nov 17, 2020
Organic produce members team up in OTA’s produce council
Organic Trade Association

The American organic produce sector is big and complex. It accounts for more sales than any other organic sector, and its production regions stretch across the United States reaping a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables. The issues facing organic produce growers, processors and distributors are equally wide-ranging: food safety, labor issues, labeling/packaging issues, climate change.

Driven by the desire for the sector to collaboratively work together to address its most urgent challenges, inspired by the success of other sector councils at the Organic Trade Association, and wanting to take advantage of the association’s deep knowledge and expertise in organic, leading produce members initiated a drive earlier this year that has resulted in the trade association’s Board of Directors’ official approval to establish an Organic Produce Council.

“We whole-heartedly welcome the formation of this sector council and look forward to problem-solving and collaborating with our colleagues throughout the organic produce supply chain,” said Board member Ben Diesl of Grimmway Farms. “This council will give Organic Trade Association member companies that are involved in the organic industry an organized opportunity to benefit from the association’s expertise, to network with diverse stakeholders and to influence the overall agenda of the association. We invite other produce members to join.”

“The new Produce Council, as with all of our sector councils, will be supported by the Organic Trade Association’s expert staff,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the trade association. “Our staff has deep expertise in organic standards, food safety, farm policy, government advocacy and international marketing. Today’s organic produce sector is robust and thriving, but it faces many challenges. We are thrilled that our produce members are coming together and tapping into their association’s bank of knowledge to help them deal with those challenges.”

Organic produce sales hold the top position in the U.S. marketplace. In 2019, organic fruit and vegetable sales reached $18 billion, as the category continued to be the star of the organic sector. Organic produce currently makes up almost a third of all organic food sales, and organic fruits and vegetables, including fresh, frozen, canned and dried, have now captured 15% of the total fruits and vegetable market in the U.S.

The produce sector has been profoundly tested by COVID-19 as it has struggled to keep its workers in the fields, plants and trucks safe, and at the same time meet exploding demand. Wanting to hear how the pandemic was affecting their businesses, Organic Trade Association’s Farm Policy Director Johanna Mirenda and Diesl of Grimmway Farms earlier this year convened produce members for a COVID-19 listening session. Everything from how to keep workers safely socially distanced and maintain planting and harvesting schedules to keeping processing lines filled and store deliveries on time were discussed.

Working together to address challenges

“Our members taking part in this discussion found it very valuable to connect with other of our produce members” said Mirenda, who is staff liaison for the new council. “Since then, individual members have come forward with other organic produce issues–such as food safety–that could serve as work plan projects for the new council to take on.” The interest from members was significant enough that the trade association hosted an exploratory meeting in early September to highlight the opportunity for a new sector council among all Organic Trade Association produce members. Nearly two dozen members attended.

Produce stakeholders said that besides food safety, they are interested in working together, with the support of the trade association’s regulatory and legislative staff, to advance outcomes relating to other key issues in organic produce, such as: implementing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new rule on strengthening organic enforcement, guaranteeing workforce safety and availability, supporting development of organic seeds and planting stock, and identifying tools for measuring and promoting biodiversity. Establishing organic labeling and packaging best practices, adapting to and mitigating climate change and developing resources on market data and research information were also identified as key needs.

Members also indicated the following priorities for their engagement:

  • Amplifying the needs of the produce community within the trade association.
  • Developing and sharing information resources among those in the organic produce industry.
  • Learning about emerging regulatory issues that impact organic produce.
  • Networking with other organic produce businesses across the value chain.
  • Creating opportunities for leadership development opportunities.

Sector Councils within the trade association build community among groups of like members to provide ongoing opportunities for networking, leadership development, education, information development, and sharing. They are not policy-setting groups. The trade association previously has established such entities as its Farmers Advisory Council, Dairy Council, Dietary Supplements Council, Fiber Council, Grains Council, and Retailer Council.

Initial companies signing up for this council include Ag. Valles del Sur SpA, Awe Sum Organics, Bolthouse Farms, Bridges Organic Produce, Cal-Organic/Grimmway Farms, Charlie’s Produce, Columbia Marketing International/CMI Orchards, Duncan Family Farm, Earl’s Organic Produce, Heath & Lejeune, Homegrown Organic Farms, Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo, Munger Farms, Naturesweet, Naturipe, Organically Grown Company, Organic Produce Network, Page’s Organics, Taylor Farms, Thermiculture Management, Vitalis Organic Seeds and Wholesum Family Farms.

The first meeting of the council is scheduled for December 8.

Other members of the trade association in this sector are encouraged to join. The council’s membership will be diverse. The technical scope of membership for the council will be very inclusive – vegetables, fruit, mushroom, herbs, tree nuts, floriculture and other horticultural crops.

For more information on the council, contact Johanna Mirenda.

The Organic Trade Association represents over 9,500 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others.

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