Growing like a weed

Organic produce is skyrocketing and farmers are working hard to increase the yield and variety of organic items available. 

Ocean-Mist-Farms-Organic-ArtichokeFrom artichokes to zucchini, an organic version of just about every produce item is now available and finding a home on the supermarket shelf.

Farmers are converting more acreage to organic and exploring other means, including new earth-friendly methods of pest and pathogen control to increase yields to meet the skyrocketing need.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that organic is only going to continue to grow,” says Matt Seeley, vice president, marketing, The Nunes Co., the Salinas, Calif.-based grower of Foxy brand. “There is a truly monumental shift going on in the way that people view their food.”

That even trickles down to artichokes.

“We’ve seen a steady increase for the request to carry organic artichokes as a part of a retailer’s overall organic program offering,” says Kori Tuggle, director of marketing & business development, at Ocean Mist Farms, based in Castroville, Calif.

“Organic artichokes can only be grown commercially in a seeded variety, whereas our Heirloom variety is grown from root stock,” Tuggle says. That results in a higher price point, and as a result, organic artichokes should be clearly marked for both consumers and cashiers. “A sticker is not enough and we recommend and apply to all Ocean Mist Organic artichokes a hang tag.”

Growers of organic bananas are using similar tactics.

“The organic PLU number is different from the conventional, plus we’ve been using banded bananas just to make sure they go through the cashier with the right PLU number and UPC code,” says Mayra Velazquez de Leon, president, Organic Unlimited, a San Diego-based organic banana marketer that has the Organics Unlimited and GROW (Giving Resources and Opportunity to Workers) socially responsible brands.

“GROW is similar to Fair Trade,” Velazquez de Leon says. “However, we do not control the pricing or set a minimum price. We go by the market price and add a surplus of 60-cents per case, which goes into a fund that gives scholarships to children and funds clean water projects, dental clinics, fishing clinics and microbusinesses for teenagers in Ecuador.”

She adds that the major banana processors have also been stepping up their organic offerings. “Within the last three years the growth from the big suppliers has increased. Everyone now wants to have some kind of presence with the organics,” Velazquez de Leon says.

That includes The Nunes Company. Until about five years ago the marketer of the Foxy brand was strictly a conventional grower/shipper of row crops, such as lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower and celery. It began offering organics due to consumer and retailer demand, Seeley says.

“What has really caught on and taken off is the organic kale,” Seeley says. “We offer three varieties, and three varieties of chard. Those items have shown tremendous growth.”

Geographically that growth is becoming widespread.

“The growth has been on the coasts, along with college towns, but it is changing,” Seeley says. “We are starting to see organics sold in Kansas City and Des Moines now.”

Lakeside Organic Gardens, based in Watsonville, Calif., grows organic versions of 45 different commodity crops, from lettuce, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, to more obscure offerings, like fennel and leeks, in California’s Pajaro Valley, and other areas during the winter months.

“There is a big demand for the more unusual items in the health food stores,” says Lindsey Roberts, Lakeside’s marketing and communications director. “They appreciate that we have such a big product line because we are a one-stop shop for all of their organic vegetables. The larger stores just get some of the more popular items—lettuce, carrots, celery—but we also have turnips, parsnips and rutabagas, and the specialty stores like those types of things.”

As a result, Lakeside is continually converting more acreage to certified organic, a process that takes three years, Roberts says.

Wholesum Family Farms, a Nogales, Ariz.-based grower of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, hard and soft squash and mangoes, is another grower that is strictly organic, maintaining an extensive network of farms and greenhouses in Mexico and Arizona.

“We’re not a conventional grower that is dabbling in organics; we’re totally organic,” says Anthony Totta, marketing and business development consultant at Fresh Experts, a Kansas City, Mo.-based consulting firm that counts Wholesum as a client. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years, so we’ve got the process fine-tuned and it is our total focus from top to bottom as a company.”

“Some of the conventional growers are in organics because the retailers are pushing them to produce more organic products,” says Steve LeFevre, sales manager, at Wholesum Family Farms. “For them it is just another item. With us, organic is just what we do.”

The birth of the modern organic movement may be traced back to the Alar scare of 1989, when reports surfaced that the chemical that was widely sprayed on apples and other produce may have led to increased cancer rates. That is why today organic apples are often the cornerstone of the supermarket’s organic produce department.

“Everything we do is organic—that’s our deal,” says Addie Pobst, organic integrity & logistics coordinator at Viva Tierra Organic, a Sedro-Woolley, Wash.-based marketer of organic apples and pears. “We have established a year-round program where we work with various producing regions with different harvest seasons in order to dovetail the harvests to continually supply the North American market.”

During the autumn, apples are sourced from Washington and California, and from Chile, Argentina and other Southern Hemisphere countries during the Northern Hemisphere’s spring.

Viva Tierra Organic growers’ provide a full range of apples. “We have all the mainstay varieties, but also some specialty items like Spitzenberg, Pink Pearl and Autumn Greeting,” Pobst says.

Stemilt Growers markets a line of organic apples, pears, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots under the Artisan Organics label. “All of our peaches and nectarines are organic. We see that as a differentiator from other states’ product during that timeframe,” says Brianna Shales, communications manager for the Wenatchee, Wash.-based company.

“Pears are difficult to grow organically, but we grow all the main and some niche varieties,” Shales says. “With apples we’re seeing a trend with the newer varieties being the ones planted for organics. Organic shoppers aren’t as price conscious, and they are buying products based on flavor and not necessarily value. Gala, Honey Crisp, Piñata, Fuji and Pink Lady are all great apple varieties for organics.”

Shales adds, “In apples and pears we are seeing tremendous demand for organics. The supply is just not there. In the future the industry is going to have to try and catch up with the demand.”

California’s strawberry growers are also devoting more acreage to organics, with approximately 7.8% of the strawberry fields now being certified organic.

“The crop yield on organic berries is generally around 60% of conventional,” says Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director, for the California Strawberry Commission, based in Watsonville, Calif. Some of that is because of disease and pathogens, which the commission has been researching for five years as part of its Farming without Fumigants initiative.

One option being explored is Anaerobic Soil Disinfestation (ASD), a process where rice bran or mustard seed meal is mixed into the soil at the rate of nine tons per acre, then saturated with water and covered with a plastic tarp for several weeks. “When the organic matter decomposes it removes any oxygen in the soil, changing its chemistry and hopefully killing the pathogens,” O’Donnell says.

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