The opening reception at the West Coast Produce Expo was packed with people, tables of food and creative cocktails. ( Amy Sowder )

PALM DESERT, Calif. — The West Coast Produce Expo could be at that magical Goldilocks size for buyers and sellers to get the most out of it — not too small, not too big.

The fifth annual conference drew 1,255 attendees May 9-10, with activities including a golf tournament, field tours, the new pool party, educational sessions and an expo with 180 booths. 

Heather Smeeton, a produce buyer for meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron, said the farm tour was well organized and informative, and the expo allowed her to network with other professionals. 

“As a buyer, I want that connection in the buyer-supplier relationship, to keep communication open and have face-to-face communication,” Smeeton said. During her stay, she was able to get ideas for new suppliers and meet up with a couple key vendor outside expo hours to connect one-on-one.

NBA Hall of Fame legend Bill Walton not only keynoted the expo day, he mingled with industry members at the opening reception the night before, and stayed after his speech to chat, pose for photos and sign autographs.

Tournament golfers contributed more than $1,500 to Brighter Bites, a nonprofit org that provides fruit and vegetables to communities who struggle to include these foods in their diet. This was the first year the West Coast Produce Expo included a charity partner.

“We’re really proud of this partnership,” said Shannon Shuman, publisher and vice president of The Packer.

Field tours at three farms in the Coachella Valley revealed high-tech greenhouses run by North Shore Living, fields of green peppers at Belk Farms and marketed by Baloian Farms, and a swath of green table grape vineyards by Tudor Ranch.

The education sessions — such as a sustainability panel moderated by Produce Retailer Editor Ashley Nickle and the “The Power of Understanding Yourself” talk by author Dave Mitchell — were packed with at least 300 people.

Swapping ideas and experiences benefits everyone, Shuman said afterward.

“I don’t think we move forward if we don’t have the opportunity to share what we know with the industry,” Shuman said.

Crystal Chavez, marketing coordinator at Gold Coast Packing, Santa Maria, Calif., praised the location and said “having Bill Walton just chillin’ was so cool.”

“It’s nice to talk to people besides by phone and e-mail — and being outside our little neck of the woods is great,” she said.

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