Buyers seek organic, sustainable options

05/03/2013 11:14:00 AM
Tom Burfield

Growers of California’s desert produce continue to expand organic programs and to comply with buyer requests for sustainably grown fruits and vegetables.

Five Crowns Marketing in Brawley, Calif., offers organic cantaloupes grown in the Imperial Valley during May, said Daren Van Dyke, director of sales and marketing.

Although most of the company’s products are conventionally grown, he said the organic category is expanding as retailers add at least some organic items to their conventional lines.

“It’s not steamrolling, but it continues to pick up interest,” he said.

As the category expands, though, profit margins on organics are shrinking, said Jon Vessey, owner and president of Vessey & Co. Inc., Holtville, Calif.

As long as the demand is there, however, the company wants to grow with the category, he said. Vessey already has a winter organic program and plans to grow some organic squash, tomatoes, eggplant and watermelons next spring.

Bakersfield, Calif.-based Anthony Vineyards offers more organic table grapes every year, said Bob Bianco, co-owner.

“Our company eventually will probably be 40% organic,” he said. “That’s what we’re striving for.”

Demand exists for red, green and black grapes, he said.

Drake Larson, owner of Drake Larson Sales, Thermal, Calif., plants only a small section of organic grapes so as not to produce an oversupply.

His organic customer base consists mostly of upscale retailers that are flavor oriented, he said.

Larson grows conventional and organic grapes, including flames, perlettes and its own Mariah variety — a sweet, black seedless grape that is available in June.

“Our breeding program is cranking out new varieties,” Larson said.

He expects organic grapes to start in late May.

Richard Bagdasarian Inc., Mecca, Calif., and its Pasha Marketing LLC division offer a full complement of conventional and organic table grapes; green, red and yellow bell peppers; and eggplant, and continues to ramp up its organic program, said Franz De Klotz, vice president of marketing.

“We continue to build on that customer base,” he said.

None of the organic items are grown “on spec,” De Klotz said.

“We’re doing it all to answer requests from customers,” he said.

The company is seeing more requests for organics from all of its retail customers, he said.

“For us, (organics) is working its way into being a viable part of our business.”

Sustainability continues to be a major topic of interest among retailers, said Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.

When he gets a memo from a buyer or potential buyer asking about the company’s sustainability program, Aiton sends out a copy of a documentation sheet that lists the ways in which Prime Time International is sustainable.

It tells, for example, how the company conserves water, recycles materials and uses solar energy in its packinghouse and pumping stations.

Likewise, Peter Rabbit Farms in Coachella is “very conscientious about sustainability,” said John Burton, general manager of sales and cooler.

The company pays close attention to sustainability in the crops it grows, the way the ground is maintained and in the rotation of its crops, he said.

Peter Rabbit Farms has been around since 1950, he said.

“I think people trust the name and trust the brand,” he said.

“People want to deal with companies that they know they are going to deal with today, tomorrow and down the road.”

Growing sustainably is “a huge concern” at Five Crowns Marketing, Van Dyke said.

“That is definitely something that is on the forefront.”

The company’s retail customers ask about the firm’s sustainability program, he said. The company has implemented a solar energy system to help conserve energy and protect the environment.

When buyers ask De Klotz about sustainability at Bagdasarian and Pasha Marketing, he points out, among other things, that the company recently completed a 650,000 kilowatt solar plant at its packinghouse.

“It will fill the majority of our electricity needs,” he said.



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