Empire State Producers Expo
The 2019 Empire State Producers Expo ran from Jan. 15-17 in Syracuse, N.Y., drawing more than 1,000 people to the more than 200 vendors and three days of educational sessions. ( By Amy Sowder )

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Green tractors, orange tree-fruit pickers and yellow holding tanks dotted the landscape of the Jan. 15-17 Empire State Producers Expo.

The expo is organized by the New York State Vegetable Growers Association. 

Despite the emphasis on vegetable and fruit production, a few packing, distributing and marketing vendors were among more than 200 booths where more than 1,000 attendees roamed throughout the three days.

Mike Vegin, regional sales manager of Decade Products, Springfield, Mass., discussed with attendees the benefits of his company’s colorful bins and pallets for harvesting, packing and shipping. Minor Bolanos, cofounder of Virtual One Software, Tampa, Fla., explained how the technology helps companies along the supply chain improve fresh produce quality and traceability. Kristen Barker, a handling certification coordinator in Binghamton, N.Y., assured attendees that the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York’s certification isn’t as difficult as people think it is.

The types of vendors and interests evolve with the times, said Jessica Johnson, an expo administrator.

“We had a big push for organic farmers, hemp, hard cider and hops this year,” Johnson said.

The expo began as a series of regional industry meetings sometime before the late 1970s, gradually coalescing into the state-wide conference and trade show it is today, said Brian Reeves, president of the expo’s state association and owner of grower-shipper and retailer Reeves Farms LLC, Baldwinsville, N.Y.

“We’ve got a lot of really long-term, loyal vendors that are here year after year. This is the place where they see most of their customers,” Reeves said. 

Staff from the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets and Cornell University attended, offering expertise at booths and in educational sessions.

Jessica Brooks, program manager for the state agriculture department, said a switch from the “Pride of New York” seal to “New York Grown and Certified” was much more than a brand change, because it requires Good Agricultural Practices certification, which checks for traceability. 

“Pride of New York was trying to support businesses in New York, and it could be anything from Kind Bars to orange juice to peanut butter, because their headquarters are in New York,” Brooks said. “But it was important the program go back to the farm, not just the business, because what we were trying to do is support farmers in New York.”

Steve Schirmer, the department’s produce safety program field administrator, answered questions from attendees about whether their operations are covered by the Produce Safety Rule in the Food Safety and Modernization Act.

“It’s one of seven FSMA rules, and it applies to growing, harvesting, packing and holding, but there are all sorts of exceptions,” Schirmer said. “If you’re just a (controlled-atmosphere) storage facility, and those aren’t your apples, this rule doesn’t apply to you. It can be very confusing.”

Food safety, labor and marketing weren’t hot topics until recently, said Steve Reiners, a Cornell horticulture professor and researcher at the university's School of Integrative Plant Science. Reiners has organized expo education sessions since 1994. The food-safety session was packed.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, we wouldn’t even have had something like that,” said Reiners, who is a Cornell liaison to several grower groups. “We try to stay current on what growers want and need.”