Sonoma County is "tailor-made" to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities coming to farms, food processors and retailers, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb said Thursday.

"We're on the doorstep of a food revolution like I've never seen," said Robb, speaking at the first North Coast Food and Agriculture Industry Conference held in Santa Rosa.

Robb, who highlighted a number of county farms and food processors, said one of the biggest new trends concerns consumers buying healthy, locally produced foods. He said the trend "is greater now" than even interest in organic foods and he predicted that it "continues to grow in spades."

Sonoma County, he said, can do well because it has the advantages of natural beauty, diversity of products and a rich heritage of farming and food production.

Also speaking Thursday on new opportunities was California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross.

A rising middle class in Asia and India is leading to "an explosion of exports" in dairy and other foods, said Ross, and California is benefiting.

"We have a worldwide strategic advantage because we can grow just about anything," said Ross, noting the state's farmers produce more than 400different crops.

She urged grape growers and wineries in particular to consider the opportunities from overseas markets.

"I don't think there's enough wine for China. I really don't," she said.

About 275 people attended the conference, which was presented by the North Bay Business Journal. The event took place at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel.

The North Bay's food industry employs 6,200 workers and adds about $4 billion to the local economy, said David Meddaugh, a senior vice president with Bank of America. It accounts for 15 percent of the region's manufacturing activity.

The conference featured speakers from local companies, including Clover Stornetta Farms, Petaluma Poultry, Straus Family Creamery and Three Twins Ice Cream.

In pointing out the county's heritage, Robb named several past food industry leaders, including cheesemaker Ig Vella, Petaluma Poultry's Allen Shainsky and Clover's Gene Benedetti. He also highlighted products of the next generation of farmers and processors, including Soda Rock Farm's heirloom tomatoes and Devoto Orchards hard cider.

"You have so many of these characters in Sonoma county," Robb said of the county's food makers. He suggested consumers are drawn to the stories of the people who produce their food.

As well, customers want to know what goes into their food and how farm animals and farmworkers are treated.

A "tipping point" is coming, he maintained, when consumers will say "enough" about the widespread use of antibiotics in farm animals.

He also recalled that he had received letters from thousands of customers "who thought we could do more" on genetically modified organisms. As a result, Whole Foods has promised to label any product with GMOs in its stores by 2018.

Robb encouraged producers to find the "new old," saying customers want heirloom products and items made as they have been for generations.

"This season, we've already sold out of our heritage turkeys, and they're the most expensive ones we sell," Robb said.

He also urged processors to consider how to market to the generation known as millennials, those born roughly after 1980. They will make one third of all retail purchases by 2020, he said.

Along that line, Clover CEO Marcus Benedetti earlier told the audience his company takes seriously the challenge of reaching that generation about the value of milk products because many "almost wear it as a badge of pride that they're dairy free."

[END_CREDIT_0]You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 <QA0>

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