Panelists including Monique Marez, director of international trade for the Organic Trade Association, discuss how to source product globally during an education session at the Global Organic Produce Expo. GOPEX is presented by The Packer and parent company Farm Journal. ( Ashley Nickle )

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Organic shippers described committed relationships as critical to the development of import programs.

The executives spoke during a panel Jan. 26 at the inaugural Global Organic Produce Expo.

David Posner, founder of Awe Sum Organics, worked for years to create a network of growers in the Southern Hemisphere. Many of those partnerships have been in place for a decade or more, but Posner still visits multiple times each year and inspects the field and packinghouse processes to make sure everything is operating as it should.

Gabriel Bernal, vice president of operations and logistics for Seasons Farm Fresh, described visiting with growers and their families as he set up various import programs.

Posner and Wholesum Family Farms board president Theojary Crisantes Sr. also spoke about investing in the communities of the overseas growers with whom they work.

Awe Sum Organics is involved in Fair for Life, and Wholesum is working to bring more and more of its operations under Fair Trade.

Often sourcing organic product internationally is critical because year-round supply is important to buyers, but there are no shortcuts.

“You’re not going to pick up a good deal online through a trader and know that you’re actually getting what you paid for,” said panel moderator Monique Marez, director of international trade for the Organic Trade Association. You have to develop the relationships. In some cases, it’s going to be your responsibility to coach your suppliers, bring them to the level where they’re able to export the product to meet your customers’ needs. Not all suppliers are going to be starting on the same foot.

“This is a long-ball game,” Marez said. “You’re not going to jump in and jump out.”



Marez also shared insight for companies wanting to export more produce.

“Something that I need to remind people — and I hear this feedback all the time from the international buyers that I work with — we tend to be a little bit stubborn,” Marez said. “We tend to think that the original way we formulated our product and the way we pack it and the way we ship it is the best way, and it’s the only way, and my way or the highway. But I’ve got to tell you, that is not the case when you’re working in international trade.

“Each country really is different,” Marez said. “They have their own set of expectations on delivery, they have their own set of expectations on how product should be presented, their own set of cultural expectations on how you do business. And if you’re thinking that as a U.S. producer a one size will fit all for your export strategy, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

She gave the example that certain packaging for the U.S. market might not work well for buyers in Japan because refrigerators there are smaller.

Marez also noted companies should think about different business strategies depending on the size of a market.

“You probably wouldn’t consider an exclusive distributor here in the U.S., but for example, once again, when you’re dealing with a country like Finland and you’re only managing a market of 5 million people, exclusivity might not necessarily be a bad thing,” Marez said. “You’re committed to someone for X amount of time, they are responsible for building your brand in that market, and competition in those small countries can get kind of gnarly.

“It’s smaller communities, you tend to have groups of importers that are really talking to each other all of the time, and you don’t really want to set up those conflicts, especially if you’re new to a market,” Marez said. “Consider it. Don’t be as scared by the concept of exclusivity.”

She also recommended offering support for products, even if the material is in English, so customers can translate it and use it in their promotions.



For fresh products, the U.S. has organic equivalency agreements in place with Canada, the European Union, Japan and Switzerland.

The U.S. is looking to reach similar agreements with Mexico and Taiwan.

“Mexico is one of our most important trading partners,” said Kelly Strzelecki, senior trade advisor for the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service. “We’ve worked very closely with them for several years as they’ve implemented their own organic program. We’ve done lots of travel and trainings together to do that ...

“We are close on this negotiation,” Strzelecki said. “We have agreement language that’s still being reviewed internally, but we hope to be able to share something with you all in the near future.”

The U.S. also has equivalency applications in from Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica.

“Having an equivalence agreement really helps to reduce the burden on producers for inspections and the cost of certification,” Strzelecki said. “And some of the other things in our perspective, too, is that we have yearly meetings, if not more, with all of our equivalence partners. We try to resolve ongoing issues that arise at any time — as it does always does at some point — so we’ve developed relationships with the organic programs in all of these other countries.

“We have much easier access to them now if we do have a problem with fraud or other things happening, so we see it as a benefit to our governments as well as our industry,” Strzelecki said.