PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — Organic farming and marketing is not getting any easier, and a panel of organic supply chain experts at EcoFarm 2020 said the causes include regulations, competition and escalating consumer expectations.
The Jan. 24 panel, moderated by Thomas Nelson, regional director with Kitchen Table Advisors, Guinda, Calif., featured two organic suppliers, a wholesale distributor and a retailer.
Panelists said there are several challenges for their businesses.
Qiana Cameron, buyer with Veritable Vegetable, San Francisco, said Department of Transportation hours-of-service regulations for truck drivers, amplified by electronic logging device mandates, have sometimes prevented trucks from making deliveries on time.
Paul Underhill, CEO of Terra Firma Farm, Winters, said California’s overtime laws are troublesome.
“We already have a labor shortage in California and that’s being exacerbated by the state of California, which is continually reducing the number of hours that people can work back without paying overtime,” he said.
That will eventually translate to less product being available. The overtime law will take full effect in 2022, when eight hours a day and five days a week will be the threshold for overtime pay for farmworkers.
Increasing labor costs and competition from large growers are pressuring small organic growers, said Bianca Kaprielian, owner of Fruit World Co., Reedley. She noted that organic Cuties mandarins recently hit the market, and that makes it hard for smaller organic citrus shippers to compete in terms of marketing dollars.
“Our job is really to figure out how to tell our story and finding creative ways to connect with consumers,” she said.
Jennifer Knapp, director of a retail distribution center for the retail cooperative La Montanita, Santa Fe, N.M., said the retailer faces price pressures from competitors like Walmart, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
“We’ve got to really work hard to tell the stories and connect people to their food and challenges that are in the desert,” Knapp said.
Panelists said packaging is a hot topic for consumers, but there is no simple solution.
“We need to do better in terms of sustainable packaging,” Kaprielian said. “The (corrugated/fiber-based packaging) has been a good first step, but I think that there is a ton of work that needs to be done on the packaging side.”
Consumers are not easily satisfied, Underhill said, noting that many have competing desires in packaging.
“For 2020, I feel like consumers expect convenience and carbon neutrality, and they are not necessarily going to be able to accept compromise just so that they are reducing their carbon footprint,” he said,
Underhill also said some bigger produce buyers have used food safety requirements to exclude small growers.
“They say, ‘If you don’t have $100,000 to spend on food safety, then we are not going to buy from you,’” he said. “A trend that I would really like to see is pushing back against third-party audits. There is a (food safety) law now and we all have to comply with it. Back off on third-party audits; we can’t afford it.”