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Five state agriculture commissioners on one stage, 283 exhibitors, a well-known food trends author, the head of the Duck Commander empire and it’s all taking place at Walt Disney World in Orlando… it must be time for the Southeast Produce Council Southern Exposure trade show and expo, set for March 8-11.

Southeast Produce Weekly caught up with SEPC Executive Director David Sherrod and Secretary and Conference Chair Steve Pinkston for an update on this year’s show:

SOUTHEAST PRODUCE WEEKLY: Year in and year out, the SEPC’s goal for Southern Exposure is to manage growth wisely so as not to dilute value for participants. But there is a long waiting list for booth space. How do you strike a balance?

DAVID SHERROD: The SEPC’s main goal with all of our events is to provide our attendees with the best networking and education experiences we can provide. This is true for Southern Exposure as well as we focus on having active members in attendance as opposed to just looking at growing the number of attendees or booths. Our growth is measured on the quality of programming we can offer to make it a valuable experience for all attendees.

SPW: What will we see new and different this year – aside from the presence of Duck Commander entrepreneur Willie Robertson instead of the usual football coach?

PINKSTON: With this year’s theme “The Magic of Produce” we’ve got a lot in store. In addition to a little magic sprinkled throughout the conference, we’ll be introducing a third workshop to our educational lineup for the first time, providing even more helpful features to the conference app, and hosting a new social media game for everyone to play to encourage conversation and networking among attendees.

SPW: Is this year’s 283 exhibitors a new record?

SHERROD: It is. We have a total of 283 exhibitors this year, up from 275 last year. We have strategically partnered with the Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World to make sure all exhibitors and attendees are comfortable and have a chance to network across the conference. Our goal is to provide a manageably sized, quality show that each and every attendee can benefit from.

SPW: In the past, there was always a morning devoted to physical farm and field tours. Last year you introduced virtual tours. How did those go over?

SHERROD: We debuted the Fresh from the Farm Field Tours last year and they went over so well we’re doing them again. Everyone raved about the information they were able to obtain from our featured member companies in such an easy and entertaining manner. Most of members remember the days of getting on buses for hours at a time to travel to different farms — with the virtual tours everyone can attend and see four different farms in an hour. Representatives from each of the member farms are present to answer any questions that may come up, so it’s the best of all worlds without the heat and the dust!

SPW: No bus ride, no missing out on other Southern Exposure events…

PINKSTON: We feel this is the best way to offer both our members and the retailers and foodservice attendees valuable information about the production process of different commodities. Different farms and commodities are featured each year providing everyone with new and updated content. This year’s featured farms will be Red Sun Farms, L&M Companies, the National Mango Board and Southern Valley.

SPW: The Commissioners’ Corner forum is something new and quite a coup, it’s rare to have that kind of Southeastern firepower gathered in one room.

SHERROD: It is a great honor for us to be able to provide the platform for five state Commissioners of Agriculture within our marketing area to enlighten our attendees on the economic impact of the produce industry within their respective states. The Southeast region remains one of the most abundant and diverse areas for the production of fresh produce in the U.S. today and these five officials represent it best.

SPW: David Sax is a good choice for keynote speaker – we can all stand to know more about what’s coming at us as far as food trends go.

PINKSTON: David Sax will offer our attendees a different view on food trends – not necessarily “the next big thing” but the how, what and why behind food trends. They can be such an anomaly in our industry and getting a better understanding from someone who has looked at them under a microscope to understand them should be very enlightening.

SPW: And now after a year of work and planning, it’s time to get on with the show.

PINKSTON: As conference chairman and SEPC Secretary, and on behalf of the whole Board of Directors, we look forward to seeing all of our members at Southern Exposure this year. Whether you’re attending on behalf of retail or foodservice, as an exhibitor, press or just as an attendee, there is something for everyone. We’re so grateful to all who attend and our sponsors who support not only this conference, but all SEPC efforts throughout the year.

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