Don Barnett, (left) COO of Sun Basket, visits with keynote speaker and author Dan Buettner, after his presentation on how people can live longer and healthier lives. ( Greg Johnson )

MONTEREY, Calif. — This wasn’t a granola organic event.

The third annual Organic Produce Summit, July 11-12 in Monterey, showed that organic is an important part of the produce business, with the emphasis on the business.

“The category is more serious for the retailers,” said exhibitor Kevin Donovan, sales manager for Kennett Square, Pa.-based Phillips Mushroom Farms.

“This year, a lot of business was done, compared to the first two years (of the event).”

Tonya Antle, co-founder and executive vice president of Organic Produce Network, said more than 1,400 people attended, which was a 40% increase over last year.

“The energy has been terrific,” she said. “The ratio of buyers has been great, and that’s not by accident. It’s a lot of hard work.”

She said more than 250 buyers attended, representing more than 100 companies.

Doug Fisher, business development director for Pro*Act, Monterey, said it was an excellent event.

“It really opened my eyes to all that’s out there in organic,” he said. “I hope we see more foodservice here in years to come.”

Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing with Watsonville-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc., said he talked to buyers throughout the July 12 expo who wanted to know about organic and conventional products.

“This is a produce event,” he said, not exclusively organics, based on the customer conversations he had. 

The highlight of the education program preceding the expo was a panel of retailers moderated by Antle. 

Roger Harkrider, director of produce for Meijer; Randy Riley, director of produce merchandising for Kroger; and Ron McCormick, senior director of global produce sourcing for Walmart; all spoke about organic’s importance to their chains’ produce operations. 

Harkrider said he’s optimistic that organic will continue to grow considering its popularity among the millennial generation. 

Riley said it’s important not to present the choice as buying either organic or conventional fruits and vegetables. 

“Consumers aren’t picking conventional or organic, but they’re growing both together,” he said.

McCormick said Walmart shoppers like to see and compare both organic and conventional. 

“We have to let customers buy however they want it,” he said.

But he cautioned against negative marketing, implying organic is superior to conventional or that it’s non-GMO.

“There’s not a big win on organic being non-GMO,” McCormick said. “GMO is confusing for consumers.”

All three urged produce companies to continue to innovate and help retailers connect consumers to the farms that grow fruits and vegetables.