The Agricultural Retailers Association kicked off its 2015 conference and expo at the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa in Palm Desert, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 2, with a full day of keynote speakers, awards and breakout sessions.

The first keynote speaker to lead the opening session was Steve Peterson, retired director of sourcing and sustainability, General Mills. His presentation, “The New Paradigm: Farm + Food Partnerships to Meet New Consumer Demand” touched on the growing demand for food that is produced sustainably. Although not everyone agrees on what the term “sustainability” means, it is now agreed on that sustainability equals profitability. “Retailers need to think about sustainability as an opportunity to engage growers,” Peterson said.

Peterson explained General Mills’ approach to setting sustainability goals and achieving them, which includes sourcing 10 key ingredients first. But the way to get growers engaged in the process is for them to realize that sustainability is about innovation not compliance and for it to be successful, it needs to be voluntary.

Following the first keynote speaker, AGCO named the winner of its Operator of the Year Award. This year’s winner was was Brian Manolovits with Wilbur-Ellis.

Daren Coppock, president and CEO, ARA, then provided his president’s report on the association and some of the key issues its working on. Hot topics for this past year included the Positive Train Control issue, Process Safety Management, Worker Protection Standards, applicator certification, WOTUS, EPA’s product registration issues such as with the Endangered Species Act and pollinator court challenges, product cancellations, GMO labeling and the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

In continuing with giving out more awards, The Andersons won the Ag Retailer of the Year award, sponsored by Monsanto and AgProfessional. Billy Pirkle, ResponsibleAg, won the Distinguished Service Award, and Richard Gearheard, former President and CEO of Agrium Retail, won the Jack Eberspacher Lifetime Achievement award.

The morning finished up with the second keynote speaker, Paul Wenger, president, California Farm Bureau Federation. His presentation was on “Population Growth, Consumer Demand & Climate Change: Challenges to Agriculture’s Sustainability.” Wenger shared how even though California has been in a drought the last four years, the state hasn’t acted like it’s been in a drought. He explained that part of the blame for the water situation in the state was due to the mismanagement of this resource. He even claims the three biggest challenges for California right now is water, water and water. The challenges of growing more food won’t be solved with less water, but the industry will have to learn to use less water in the future.

After lunch, attendees had the opportunity to listen any of the following three breakout sessions: “When Millennials Take Over” by Jamie Notter, partner, Culture That Works; “Using Data to Find New Business” by Greg Bright, chief data officer and principle architect, Leap Media Solutions; or “Lend Me Your Ears: Let’s Talk Banking and Finance” by Ed Skelton, business economist-financial industries studies, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Day two will see more awards and breakout sessions including “Branding Your Business” by Michael Turley, chief executive officer, OsbornBarr; “Your Organization’s Most Important Asset: Executive Health” by Robert Orford, director, executive health program, Mayo Clinic; and “Water Issues in California and Beyond” by Victor Davis Hanson, professor, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

The final keynote speaker will be Jim Prokopanko, retired president and chief executive officer, The Mosaic Company.