Natural Products Expo West

Feb 1, 2024
Written by: Marvin Baker

From March 12-16, there’s an event happening in Anaheim, Calif., that is unlike any other in the United States, except for a parallel event that happens each September in Baltimore.

It’s called Natural Products Expo West and it brings tens of thousands of exhibitors, guests, media and sponsors together to look at the latest innovations in everything organic from retail to farming.

A number of entrepreneurs from North Dakota have made the trip to Anaheim over the years in an effort to make a difference in the world of business and some of them have become quite successful because of the exposure at Expo West.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to go as a journalist. My job was to highlight those registered from North Dakota and what it may have been doing for their bottom line.

That was in 2005 and a couple of the things that really stuck out in my mind; 80,000 people attended that year’s expo despite it being quite expensive to exhibit or go just as a curious participant.

The other memory was that of the tenacity of participants to embrace organic agriculture, organic food, organic cosmetics and even organic pet food.

At that time (March 2005) North Dakota had roughly 300 organic crop and/or livestock producers. Today that number has dropped to 117, according to the latest statistics from USDA.

Unfortunately, that’s not where consumer demand is headed. Ever since USDA set an organic standard in 2002, demand for organic products has risen by double digits nearly every year since. And when they didn’t, they were single digit increases. As a result, organic grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats Market have sprung up all over the country. In addition, traditional grocery stores began carrying many more organic products.

And just one year after attending Expo West, my National Guard unit was mobilized to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. There wasn’t any housing for us on MacDill Air Force Base so CENTCOM put us up in apartments in the city of Tampa.
On my time off, I explored the cities of Tampa and St. Pete and saw exactly the same enthusiasm for organic products as I did a year earlier in Anaheim.

It wasn’t hard for me to connect the dots. Organic businesses from North Dakota at Expo West, tens of thousands of people engaged in organic interest at Expo West, and people all over the Tampa Bay metro flocking to stores and farmers’ markets that sold organic products that included organic wine and beer in liquor stores.

That’s part of the reason my wife and I created our market gardening business. Not only did we see a need before my trip to Anaheim, but my guess was that after seeing what I saw in 2005, then again in 2006, I knew it was only a matter of time before that same organic consumer interest would reach North Dakota consumers. And it did!

Our business has done quite well at the farmers’ market in downtown Minot. Unfortunately, two things have happened in North Dakota that go against this grain of organic consumer demand.

The number of overall organic farms in the state has dropped sharply in the past 20 years. It could be simply a matter of fewer farmers. Secondly, there are fewer organic certifiers than there were in 2005, which makes it more difficult to transition to organic.

There was a time before 2010 that North Dakota was second in the nation in organic agriculture production following California. Now, it doesn’t even crack the top 10.

The consumer demand for organic products is going to continue and if American producers don’t satisfy the demand, others will pick up the slack.

Looking at a nation of 332 million, Australia, Canada, Argentina, Chile and Mexico all seem to understand this consumer demand and are taking advantage of it. Just read the labels of organic products next time you go to the grocery store. I just bought some organic blueberries… product of Peru.

Most often our products like wheat, soybeans or canola, that are so plentiful in North Dakota, are not coming from here when they are labeled organic. Is this a missed opportunity?

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