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ORLANDO, FL — From mountaineers to Mousketeers, Disney to Duck Dynasty, the 2017 Southeast Produce Council Southern Exposure tradeshow and convention held here March 8-11 literally featured something for everyone.

Some 2,600 registered attendees, 288 exhibitors and 480 retail and foodservice buyers packed the Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel from Wednesday night through Sunday morning in the industry’s best combo package of business, education and family fun.

After kicking things off with the annual Tom Page Golf Classic (which brought out a record 340+ players) Thursday, SEPC rang up a series of coups with the Friday morning educational sessions. For the second year, virtual tours let visitors see farms and operations around the Southeast without leaving the hotel. Then, in what may have been an industry first, four state agriculture commissioners joined forces for a panel discussion about challenges and opportunities in their states. Sandy Adams of Virginia, Steve Troxler of North Carolina, Hugh Weathers of South Carolina and Gary Black of Georgia took the stage of a packed conference room (Florida’s Adam Putnam was scheduled to attend as well but was prevented by a state emergency) for the first ever Commissioners Corner panel.

“People now think their food just automatically by magic comes from the back of a grocery store, so we’re doing a lot to say, ‘Your food comes from a farm’ and trying to get people out to farms and see where their food comes from,” said Virginia’s Adams.

“We’re $20 trillion in debt so I’m not optimistic about more money in the Farm Bill, ,” said Georgia’s Black. “So we better move from low-priority items to high-priority. One way we’re trying is our 2020 Vision for School Nutrition in Georgia we launched a year and half ago – it’s a simple vision and extraordinary things are happening: By the start of the 2020 school year, every school meal, every day, at least 20 percent of the menu will be Georgia-grown. That really doesn’t cost a lot of money to do.”

Author David Sax followed with a session about spotting food trends.

“Every generation is always going to eat differently than its predecessors, but they still need to eat and need a basic mix of foods and nutrition,” Sax said, “It gives more opportunity across the food chain. We all have that mix — there are no local bananas. You have to keep your ear to the ground, it’s up to you in the food business, try new restaurants, pay attention to social media and you’ll start to develop a second sense.  It’s like predicting stock is going to go up, you can’t predict it far out, you can just see it blossoming and hopefully get on the train early enough to profit from it.”

Next up was Alison Levine, keynote speaker at the Southern Roots luncheon for Women in Produce led the first expedition of American women to climb Mt. Everest and has since become a sought-after author and motivational speaker.

“There are so many parallels between mountain climbing and any industry and not just business life but personal life,” Levine said. “We’re all dealing with a lot of unknown factors and variables we can’t control. We’ve all had experiences where things didn’t go the way we planned and we had to backtrack and change direction and do things differently. That applies to anything.”

The Friday night gala focused on “The Magic of Produce” and delivered. Acrobats hung from the ceiling, magicians roamed the floor and a rocking band played deep into the night.

Saturday brought a sold-out luncheon appearance by Duck Commander CEO and “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson, who wowed the crowd with tales of faith, fortune and hard work.

“I appreciate what these people do – I’m a customer,” Robertson told SPW before his speech to an audience that fully appreciated not only his business success but his focus on family and faith. “The family is what it’s all about, that’s what made the TV show come to life. And it has a lot to do with our faith. It’s kept us together and kept us happy. It’s an honor to be here, I’ve had this one circled. Its good hanging out with these folks – a lot of them remind me of my own family. There’s some good people here, a lot of hard workers and that’s what makes America great so I’m proud to be here and represent.”

The main event followed, the five and a half hour sprint to the finish line that is the Southern Exposure tradeshow. The 288 exhibitors were a record (though that number will contract next year in Tampa; “Being at Disney gave us room to accommodate a few more this year,” said SEPC Past President Andrew Scott) as was the number of attendees, which certainly topped the 2600 that pre-registered.

“It’s our first Southern Exposure and we’re so excited to be here,” said Nate Stone of Detroit, MI’s Ben B. Schwartz and Sons. “We didn’t know what to expect but I can tell you this is the best-kept secret of any convention and we’ve been going to conventions for 40 years. Anybody who’s missing this show is missing one of the best available in the country. This has just been remarkable. They’re accommodating a lot of people. Just the floor show alone is worth the price of admission. I’ve met so many people we do business with and even more that we don’t, it’s going to mean a lot to our company in Detroit. We’re coming back now, we’re going to be regulars.”

More than 1,000 tickets were sold for the closing event, the Gator Moon reception held at the Dolphin resort’s beach, giving attendees one last chance to mix and mingle before heading home Saturday.

“We’re blessed,” said SEPC Executive Director David Sherrod. “People feel like they get value here and that’s the one thing we want to make sure we’re giving them year after year. What’s so great about the Southeast is we’ve got a lot of growers of course, but also a lot of retailers down here and people all over North America sell to these retailers, that makes us unique and we’re pretty proud about the Southeast and especially the role the Southeast Produce Council plays in that. We couldn’t do it without all our sponsors and everybody who comes out to support this industry and organization each and every year. Being at Disney added that little bit more of magic we wanted to have this year so it’s been fun.”

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