Large specialty crop growers in the Eastern U.S. met recently in Isle of Palms, SC, for two days of one-on-one strategic meetings with suppliers and networking with their industry peers.
Fruit and Vegetable Grower Connect East (formerly known as Eastern-GrowerConnect) is an invitation-only program that is unlike a trade show or conference. It brings together supply-side decision makers with growing-side decision makers in a distraction-free setting to discuss solutions to growers’ challenges. This year, supplier solutions ranged from crop protection and plant health to labor and the latest spraying technology.
Before heading to Isle of Palms, each grower took part in an in-depth interview to uncover the operation’s most pressing needs and specific interests. Suppliers were recruited in categories that could provide solutions to those interests or needs.
Two Days of Learning
The event is a productive way to interact with others in the industry, says Holly Chamberlain, Regional Director of Agronomy, Model Farm Manager at International Farming Corp. in Florida.
“This is an opportunity to hear about the latest products, discuss trials, and think about new opportunities with different companies whether it is spray programs, fertilizer, or nutritional programs,” she said.
For Randy Zondag at Smart Guided Systems, the discussion focused on advanced spray systems that optimize spray applications. He said the event provided him with an opportunity to sit down with decision makers from large growing operations that he probably wouldn’t have met or talked with otherwise. Plus, the location near the ocean in South Carolina was a bonus.
“People may have a misconception on what [Connect] is,” Zondag said. “[Connect allows a] company to sit down with top growers in the country. You pick and choose who you want to meet with. You don’t get that opportunity very often.”
Kerry Scott agreed. Scott is Program Manager at másLabor, a company that helps employers obtain reliable and legal seasonal labor using the H-2A program.
“We find the format exceptionally productive. First, growers self-select to meet with us. Second, we get a lot of advance information about their operations, which lets us tailor our meetings to them,” Scott explained. “We reach out to them in advance of the event and find out what their particular questions are so we can come prepared. It’s not hit or miss like at a trade show. I find at trade shows, of the customers we may want to visit with, the [representative] who is there is generally sales staff.”
That is not the case at Connect.
“At this event it is often principals of the business, and if it is not the principal, [the attendee] is almost always educated on what we do and is prepared to listen to a presentation with understanding and ask good questions,” Scott said. “Of course, around all of that is a beautiful setting, good meals, and lots of social opportunities to interact.”
Camaraderie with Fellow Growers
Connect East is more than meetings. When growers first arrived, they had a chance to talk about what is on their minds with their peers during the grower roundtable.
“There is a lot of effective conversation that comes from the grower roundtable,” said Scott Rush, Director of Lipman Local, Lipman Family Farms in Florida. “You’ve got growers from Florida on up the coast that are experiencing a lot of the same issues. Farming is experiencing some extreme challenges now, such as [labor problems], water issues, and environmental issues, which are all very discussed topics.”
“It is a great event, from the grower roundtable to meeting with the vendors and engaging with folks in a way that we don’t get to do while we are in the field or in our normal operations,” Chamberlain added.
It’s About Sharing
For first-time attendee Garrett Howell of Howell Farming in North Carolina, it was nice to come and talk to other growers and just share ideas, he said. He encouraged other growers to attend, as well. There is much to learn.
“I knew this was going to be a good opportunity, and it was going to be informative,” Howell said. “I learned some things, and I met some people who I might start doing business with.”