Tennessee could turn out to be the land of opportunity for organic fruit and vegetable growers. There is a lot of interest in organic and sustainable production in the state, said Annette Wszelaki, vegetable extension specialist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Because the state’s supply of organic produce was much less than the demand for it, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the university partnered on a statewide organic agriculture initiative.

The program helps establish networks and partnerships to promote organics, and it works to address issues specific to the state’s organic agriculture.

The initiative addresses the system of organic production rather than focusing only on individual growers. More supply is needed to develop markets, but good markets are necessary to encourage more growers.

Without increased production, it is difficult to develop a good infrastructure for organic distribution, Wszelaki said.

The initiative offers workshop series to teach beginning and experienced growers. In the past two years, workshops were conducted in the classroom, but this year, they are being taught on organic farms.

The initiative has made great strides in supporting organic growers, Wszelaki said.

The number of organic growers is increasing, though it is still small, she said.

In 2008, there were 20 certified organic vegetable and fruit producers. By October 2010, there were more than 30.

Most of the state’s organic growers market directly to consumers through community-supported agriculture or farmers markets because they want to maintain contact with customers and offer the best prices they can, Wszelaki said.

Some organic growers sell to Whole Foods Market, and some sell to wholesalers.

Dixie Produce Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn., a member of Nashville, Tenn.-based Produce Alliance LLC, distributes primarily to foodservice customers, said Lee Pittman, owner and president.

Organic produce has a place, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal, he said, perhaps because of costs.

“More of our customers deal with the value of a product,” Pittman said. “People don’t want to buy something that costs 35% more just because it’s organic.”

Frank Campisano Jr., president of Frank A. Campisano & Sons Fruit Co., Louisville, Ky., sometimes sells organic produce.

Demand for it is steadily growing, he said, but it is still not significantly more than it was 20 years ago.

Adam Watson, produce marketing specialist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, Frankfort, inspects organic operations for certification under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

Organic is of interest to retailer buyers in the state, but they are more interested in buying locally grown produce, he said. While buyers like organic, the price point is sometimes too high.

“It’ll depend on the customer, but a broad statement is that local is just as attractive as organic,” Watson said.