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SANTA ROSA -- As food-savvy consumers grow in prominence throughout the U.S., many North Bay food and agriculture businesses are discovering a common thread -- that a shared culture of transparency and a long history of North Bay farming has helped captivate buyers and grow those companies' cache both in the U.S. and abroad, according to speakers at the North Bay Business Journal's inaugural Food and Agriculture Industry Conference today.

[caption id="attachment_83648" align="alignleft" width="300"] Walter Robb, Whole Foods co-CEO, interviews Katie Magnuson of tomato supplier Soda Rock Farms during the 2013 North Coast Food and Agriculture Industry Conference. (image credit: Eric Gneckow)[/caption]

It is a message that has come to play an important role for retailers throughout the country, and has remained integral to the marketing and procurement of products for the national organic grocery chain Whole Foods Market, said co-CEO Walter Robb.

"Profiling a product -- 'who made it,' 'how they made it' and 'where was it made' -- that's what the customer wants to know now," he said. A Marin County native, he listed a number of artisan food pioneers in Sonoma County, noting that "people are interested in authenticity. You have it in spades."

 Joining Mr. Robb were speakers representing some of the North Bay's most well-known food producers, including Neal Gottlieb, "founding twin" of Three Twins Ice Cream, Marcus Benedetti, president and CEO of Clover Stornetta Farms and Mike Leventini, president of Petaluma Poultry Processors.

Those participants each said that clear consumer messaging concerning mindful practices within their business has been key to the growth of their companies in recent years. In the case of Petaluma Poultry, a focus on organic Rocky and Rosie chicken has helped fuel 20 percent annual growth in recent years, Mr. Leventini said.

The 40-year-old company took the renewed approach with an eye on scalability, seeking "the ability to differentiate and create something not out there in the marketplace," he said.

Three Twins has been scaling quickly from its early days as a single "scoop shop" in San Rafael, and now uses milk tankers to supply its manufacturing facility. Yet the company still procures its milk from local producers, communicating that aspect and efforts towards overall quality to consumers through smart branding and packaging, Mr. Gottlieb said.

"A lot of this stuff at first seems crazy, but then you think about the impact," he said, noting food safety rules that have helped fuel the reputation of California products.

Mr. Robb of Whole Foods said that consumers are often willing to pay more for a premium product if enough information is available to justify the purchase. The company has itself been developing in-house labeling for its products, with goals like labeling all genetically modified products by 2016.

At Clover, which grew in profile as a leading dairy in avoiding use of a growth hormone that had become common in the dairy industry, communicating their brand message to the so-called "Millennial" generation is a new challenge. The company is currently going through a rebranding and packaging initiative that is expected to complete around the middle of 2014, Mr. Benedetti said.

Part of that story includes a regional roster of dairy producers for Clover, a group whose sustainability has become self-evident after generations of family ownership, he said.

"What we recognized was the inherent value-add with the dairy farmers in the North Bay," Mr. Benedetti said.

Efforts are under way to find synergistic benefits between those ranchers, farmers and processors in Sonoma County. The economic development group Sonoma County BEST has served as a conduit for such a group, gathering a number of agricultural and specialty food interests under the auspices of its Food Industry Group or "FIG."

Among the top concerns identified during the group's first "pilot" year of meetings has been the availability of talent. Communicating to that prospective workforce that there are a number of similar opportunities in the North Bay could be key to attracting that talent to the region, said BEST Executive Director Carolyn Stark and others.

"It's a great place to live, but there was no awareness of the depth of industry here," she said.

Joining Ms. Stark on a panel were Robert McGee, a FIG participant and chief financial officer of Strauss Family Creamery, and Ellen Feeney, president of a 600-member Boulder, Colo. group Naturally Boulder.

[caption id="attachment_83649" align="alignleft" width="300"] California Food & Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross (image credit: Eric Gneckow)[/caption]

The nature of those agriculture and food manufacturing jobs has evolved along with changing technology and trends, presenting employment opportunities that California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross said can sometimes be below the radar for young people who might not otherwise consider the field as a career path.

Partnerships with the private sector -- particularly in communities with a strong agricultural industry and history -- could help augment efforts underway in public schools to present students with those opportunities at an early age. The Department of Agriculture's specialty crop block program could be one mechanism to help fund those efforts, with hope to create a career pathway from seventh grade to the college level, she said.

"There's hundreds of exciting career opportunities, and it's not just standing the field with a hoe or driving a tractor," she said, noting the role of robotics and mathematics in modern agriculture.

Ms. Ross also noted that the same consumer trends influencing larger companies are opening up demand for smaller, artisan producers. As those entrepreneurial endeavors enter the marketplace, a new policy question has been development of an approach to food safety that does not stifle those producers.