(March 18, 2:15 p.m.) Despite a slowing economy, organizers expect to another year of strong participation to mark this year’s New England Produce Council’s yearly exposition.

Scheduled for April 1 at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, the yearly show, in its ninth year, promises a lively crowd of retailers, foodservice buyers, wholesalers, distributors, brokers, processors and grower-shippers interacting with each other.

This year’s event, which will be presented under the “April Fools” theme, also ties-in with college students considering produce careers. An educational program, conducted with the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s Foundation for Industry Talent, has students touring wholesale distribution facilities and visiting the expo show floor.

Laura Sullivan, executive director of the Burlington, Mass.-based council, said a darker economy hasn’t dimmed expected participation.

“With the economy the way it is, we were prepared for maybe a lighter showing, and we did expect maybe a dip in registration,” she said. “But so far it’s been good. We are plugging along with sponsorships in registration and attendees. We hope to repeat what we did last year.”

Last year’s show attracted more than 700 attendees that visited 230 booths, Sullivan said.

This year’s show is similar to recent years. It starts with an invitation-only VIP reception the evening of March 31 in the State Room on 60 State Street.

Kicking off the one-day expo on April 1 will be a breakfast featuring the Produce Family Feud game hosted by Buck Jones, a Plano, Texas, food industry consultant who owns Jonessco Enterprises Inc.

Produce Jeopardy features two teams of area brokers, retailers and distributors — the Fruit Loops and the Veggie Bites — that participate in a humorous competition by answering produce retail questions garnered from a survey of 100 New England produce managers.

The trade show opens after breakfast and features the yearly best booth and floral design contest awards. Winners of the best booth contest receive a discount towards next year’s council expo. The contest categories include best single booth and best multiple booths as well as honorable mentions.

As some companies expend much effort into designing and assembling unique and attractive booths that fit with the show’s theme, Sullivan said the booth contests help create industry excitement while the Produce Family Feud game can create laughter.

Will Wedge, the group’s second vice president and director of produce and floral merchandising for Hannaford Bros. Co., Scarborough, Maine, said the show provides strong networking opportunities.

“It affords the growers, shippers, processors and retailers to all come together in one forum the opportunity to collaborate on ideas, view new and innovative items and think outside of the box in regard to product innovation, and to identify items that are seasonally important and how to merchandise produce much more effectively,” Wedge said.

Wedge, who was recently elected to a leadership post on the board, has been involved with the council for three years.

He said the program continues to get larger and stronger each year.

The program, Wedge said, also provides an opportunity for growers to highlight the commodities grown in New England, including potatoes and asparagus.

Unlike other regional shows, Sullivan said the New England council tries to keep the event focused on the trade show. Though the council in the past offered educational programs and chef demonstrations, she said the council has pulled away from activities that could distract from the show’s exhibitors.

The New England show’s main goal: to encourage people to talk with exhibitors and learn about the new products the companies offer retailers, Sullivan said.

Dress for the expo is business casual.

New England produce event embracing ‘April Fools’
The New England Produce Council’s 2009 exposition, set for April 1, will be presented under the “April Fools” theme.

Courtesy New England Produce Council