Johnsons to serve time for crop insurance fraud

Brothers Aaron and Derek Johnson, who were convicted of felony counts of conspiracy and making false statements to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency and law enforcement officials after a jury returned a unanimous verdict in Fargo, ND, Dec. 11, have 14 days to appeal their sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson on March 9.

The judge sentenced Aaron Johnson, age 50, to four years in prison and five years of supervised release. Derek Johnson, age 47, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and five years of supervised probation. Both will serve their time in federal prison in Duluth, MN.

Erickson ordered that the Johnsons' farm equipment and land be seized and sold to satisfy financial restitution of nearly $1 million due to crop insurance fraud.

At the time charges were filed, it was alleged that the brothers purposefully damaged their potato crops from 2002 to 2010. The judge based the amount of financial restitution in the case upon losses during the 2006 crop year. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the damage included the application of Rid-X to potatoes, use of warehouse heaters to hasten product deterioration, and addition of spoiled and frozen potatoes to stored product.

The conviction is one of only a handful of this type to have occurred. According to Mark Price, an investigator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency, there have been six convictions since 2012, and only one in 2014.

Ocean Mist heirloom artichokes 'Easy as 1-2-3'

March marks the beginning of peak heirloom artichoke season and Ocean Mist Farms is supporting sales with multiple activities designed to generate sales and consumer awareness for this special variety of fresh artichokes.

The family farmers of Ocean Mist Farms, one of the larger growers of artichokes in North America, have been growing heirloom artichokes for more than 90 years. OMF Easy-As-1-2-3 logo

The heirloom artichoke variety is a perennial plant that grows from original rootstock that dates back to the start of Ocean Mist Farms in 1924. The formal classification of an heirloom fresh fruit or vegetable is any distinct variety that grows and has been in trade for more than 50 years using the same lineage.

Like a family recipe, this unique variety of artichoke grows from the same rootstock that has been passed down to each generation of Ocean Mist family farmers for more than 90 years — never from seed. Artichokes have such a strong legacy in California that they were named the Official State Vegetable of California.

Ocean Mist Farms’ heirloom variety is also the variety that chefs prefer. Many chefs refer to the heirloom variety as the "red label,"artch referring to the red font color on the Ocean Mist Farms carton.

Peak volume of the Castroville heirloom crop is expected in April, Diana McClean, director of marketing, said in a press release. All the heirloom artichokes will carry a red PLU/UPC sticker to help shoppers find the Ocean Mist Farms’ heirloom variety in stores.

“During spring’s heirloom artichoke season, we activate a multi-faceted promotional strategy that includes retail contests, radio ads in Northern California, a consumer sweepstakes, custom in-store point-of-sale, display bins and petal inserts,” McClean said.

The consumer sweepstakes will run in April and the theme is “Easy as 1-2-3.”

“Artichokes can be made in countless ways, but many people use the same cooking method and dip the petals in their favorite sauce,” McClean said.

For the Easy as 1-2-3 sweepstakes the players, who must be members of the Ocean Mist Farms’ Artichoke Club, can enter each day by selecting their favorite base, mixer and herb to create a unique artichoke dip. Daily prizes will be awarded and unique dip names will be generated to share across social media platforms.

The sweepstakes dipping game details will be communicated via social media channels and petal inserts in stores across the country. The petal inserts will be placed in every other artichoke for stores that agree to carry the item and labels will be added to the clamshell packages, which is a new packaging option for the spring season. Daily winners will be entered in chance to win a grand prize of $1,000.

“We want to use the Easy as 1-2-3 theme to demystify the artichoke eating experience and add a fun engaging element to the process,” McClean said.  “We like that it gets people thinking creatively about cooking with artichokes.”

Ocean Mist Farms will also activate geo-marketing with its email Arti-Alerts sent to members of its Artichoke Club when retailers have heirloom artichokes on sale-specific in their market. The same message is also shared via Ocean Mist Farms’ Facebook page and other social media channels.

The culmination of peak season will be the Annual Castroville Artichoke Festival held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds May 30-31. The festival features Arti the Artichoke, Agro Art, chef demos, artichoke field tours, wine tasting and assorted activities for artichoke lovers of all ages.

Loblaw to invest $1.2 billion, create more than 20,000 jobs in 2015

Loblaw Cos. Ltd., a leading Canadian retailer based in Brampton, ON, will invest more than $1.2 billion in its Canadian business in 2015. The investment includes construction projects for dozens of new and existing stores, e-commerce expansion and continued investment in supply chain and IT infrastructure.

As one of Canada's largest networks of corporate and independently owned retail stores and formats, each employing between 20 and 300 employees, Loblaw's investment is expected to create more than 20,000 jobs through store staffing and construction.

"While we continue to invest in the IT and infrastructure engines of our business, we're increasingly making investments that Canadians will see with their own eyes – improving our offer, adding stores, and creating jobs locally," Galen G. Weston, executive chairman and president of Loblaw Cos. Ltd., said in a press release. "True to our strategy, our investment will create better access to fresh food, wellness solutions closer to home, e-commerce convenience, and a family of stores that elevate grocery, pharmacy, apparel and banking experiences."

Kevin Coupe to keynote NEPC expo

The New England Produce Council has announced that food industry expert Kevin Coupe will deliver the keynote address at the council's annual expo this September.

This will be the council's 16th annual event, and it has been renamed the Produce, Floral & Foodservice Expo. It will take place Sept. 16-18 at the Chatham Bars Inn & Resort in Chatham, MA, on beautiful Cape Cod.KevinCoupeKevin Coupe

Coupe is the author of "Retail Rules! 52 Ways to Achieve Retail Success," a guidebook for competing effectively and efficiently. For more than 13 years, he has had his own website/blog, providing "business news in context and analysis with attitude," according to his biographical sketch.

"Kevin is a well-known food industry expert," NEPC President Bob McGowan told The Produce News Friday afternoon, March 6. "That's what really drew us to him. We're looking forward to his insight from a more global perspective."

Coupe will open the NEPC expo at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, with the keynote presentation and produce industry forum. The topic of his presentation will be "What's the Future? How People, Technology & Culture Are Reshaping the Competitive Landscape."

This will be followed by a VIP reception, and then by the beachfront Chatham-style clam and lobster bake. The council held a clambake at last year's expo in Newport, RI, and proved extremely popular with attendees.

The expo will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, followed by a sunset cruise at 6 p.m.

The council for many years had held its annual expo in the spring, but in 2014 it made the decision to move the event to September to better highlight New England during that picturesque time of the year just before the onset of fall. The 2015 event on Cape Cod continues that time frame.

"We have high expectations for the whole event," McGowan stated. "September should be a great time for all attendees to enjoy our event in New England."

Costco’s organic sales double, still growing

Costco Wholesale Corp.’s sales of organic produce have seen tremendous growth recently. In 2014, the company’s organics were approaching $3 billion in sales, which Richard Galanti, chief financial officer, said was more than twice what the company did two years earlier.

"It's growing fast,” he said in a conference call discussing Costco's operating results for the first half of fiscal 2015. "I don't know if it's 50 percent a year, but it's certainly growing at a high... number. And it's great for us, because we show even a better value on that stuff than some of the things that it replaces."

Galanti noted that there is still plenty of room for growth: "It's still a small percentage of Costco. It's a rising — but it's a fast-growing area, as it is with a lot of other retailers as well. You're going to see more and more of it.”

While Costco’s organic products are more robust in some areas of the country, developments in the supply situation may change that in the future.

Part of the challenge, he said, is availability. "We — and everybody else — could sell a lot more if there was more out there,” Galanti said. "I think we're doing a pretty good job of lining up our sourcing.”

Costco currently operates 671 warehouses, including 474 in the United States and Puerto Rico.