BALTIMORE — Maybe the annual All Things Organic convention should be renamed All Things But Fresh Produce.
That’s because I sure didn’t see much of it on the expo floor Sept. 21-24 in Baltimore. And it’s truly sad that this once-great show has been reduced to something with little value to fresh produce buyers and sellers.
When I started working with The Packer almost six years ago, the first fresh produce convention I covered was a gigantic United Fresh Produce Association show co-located with the FMI show and a well-run, fresh produce-laden All Things Organic expo organized in large part by the Organic Trade Association.
Overall, from everything I heard, the show rivaled the Produce Marketing Association’s annual extravaganza.
Since then, I’ve noticed the fresh produce presence at the organic expo has been diminishing year after year. I knew it was going to hurt the organic show a great deal when it stopped co-locating with United Fresh, but a new co-location partnership with Natural Products Expo East seemed like a good fit at first.
As it ends up, it’s more like the fit O.J. had with the glove during his murder trial.
The fresh produce presence at the show this year was slim at best, and getting answers as to why seemed an all-too difficult chore.
Representatives of the Organic Trade Association referred questions to New Hope Natural Media, the Boulder, Colo., company that is now the show’s organizer.
“OTA is not the ‘seller’ of the exhibit space,” the OTA’s Laura Batcha said in an e-mail.
“We have heard from members the issue (of dwindling fresh produce presence at All Things Organic) is time proximity to PMA, but again, I would go to New Hope for a quote.”
“We don’t tend to have much fresh produce — (this) expo is mainly for packaged goods,” Heather Smith, public relations representative for the Natural Products Expo East and New Hope Natural Media, said in an e-mail.
Smith said the show at the Baltimore Convention Center drew more than 20,000 attendees from 80 nations, with 1,450 exhibitors, but All Things Organic is now just a relatively small portion of the overall natural products show, and I saw less than a half-dozen representatives from what I would call traditional fresh produce companies there.
West Grove, Pa.-based I Love Produce and Shenandoah Growers, Harrisonburg, Va., had some new products to talk about in the All Things Organic booth section.
Most of the few other fresh produce companies there, such as Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Produce Inc. and Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics, were not even in the All Things Organic section, although I don’t understand why Albert’s Organics would not be in the organic section of the show floor.
Ben Riggs, vice president of business development for Four Seasons Produce, explained his company’s reasons for exhibiting at the show as simply “to meet with existing customers and expand our customer base.
“Organics is 45% of our business, so this show is an opportunity for us to meet with organic retailers and co-ops. There were fewer retailers there this year, but our sales leads are above average, volume-wise, so we feel it’s a good investment,” Riggs said after the show.
I’m glad Four Seasons Produce realized some fresh produce value in the show, but about a half-dozen fresh produce-specific booths just doesn’t cut it. It’s nowhere near how the show was when I first started at The Packer.
“I’ve attended the show before with FMI, but never saw it as an opportunity from the fresh side. (There are) not the right buyers and VPs in attendance,” Julia Inestroza, marketing director for Los Angeles-based Gourmet Trading Co., said.
I caught up with Inestroza a few days after the Baltimore show as we both attended Pack Expo in Las Vegas, which, in stark comparison, was rocking with foot traffic and produce specific products and attendees.
Inestroza said she has learned that Pack Expo and All Things Organic are shows heading in two different directions, as far as the fresh produce industry is concerned.
She hasn’t been attending the organic show, and neither has Karen Caplan, chief executive officer and president of Frieda’s Inc.
“My experience with All Things Organic is that it is mostly everything but produce,” she said in an e-mail.
While products like Snackle Mouth granola clusters, Zendulgence hemp gelato and Nawgan functional beverages are hip products with plenty of expo audience appeal, the lack of fresh produce presence at the show is both apparent and abhorrent.
The fact that Matt McLean, chief executive officer of Uncle Matt’s Organic Inc., has been named board president of the OTA, is hopefully a step in the right direction for produce.
McLean, who has been on the board for six years, including some time as board vice president, has been an organic citrus grower for 13 years.
However, he did not return messages for comment in this column.
Will fresh produce-related people leading the OTA board translate into greater fresh produce show presence?
It’s something New Hope Natural Media absolutely needs to address, and if it doesn’t, McLean and the OTA should insist upon it or regain control of the organic part of the show itself.
Otherwise, the OTA’s stance that fresh produce is an important part of the overall organic food sector amounts to nothing more than lip service.
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