As much as 15% of California’s kiwifruit crop is grown organically, and shippers say sales have remained strong despite the recession.

“We have not seen a decline in our organic kiwifruit business during the recession,” said David Posner, president and chief executive officer of Awe Sum Organics Inc., a growers’ sales agent based in Capitola, Calif.

Those who purchase organics consider fresh organic fruit and vegetables to be essential to the health of their families, the workers and the environment — not a luxury item, he said.

“Organic consumers, as long as they have an income, are more likely to continue to purchase organic fruit and produce and will cut back on purchases of other things that are not essential to health and the environment in a financially difficult time,” Posner said.

The company expects to ship 280,000 tray equivalents of organic California kiwifruit this season.

Cal Harvest Marketing Inc., Hanford, Calif., received its organic certification two years ago, said John Fagundes, president.

With another field coming online this year to help cope with demand, 50% of the company’s volume will be organically grown, he said.

The company supplies as much as 35% of California’s organic kiwifruit, he said.

Only California, New Zealand and some areas of Italy can market organic kiwifruit in U.S., he said.

All of the kiwifruit Wild River Marketing Inc., Marysville, Calif., ships is organic, said president Mike Noland.

“We feel it’s the right way to farm,” he said.

Sales have remained strong during economic hard times.

“We have not seen a significant drop off due to the recession,” Noland said.

Tauranga, New Zealand-based Zespri also promotes organic kiwifruit, said spokeswoman Liz Moody.

Two of the characters in the company’s current Kiwifruit for Kids campaign are organic, she said, adding that 300 growers in New Zealand produce high-quality organic kiwifruit.

“Organic fruit is blemish free, perfectly round and as delicious as conventional,” she said.

“We won’t bring it to market if it doesn’t look and taste as good as nonorganic product.”

New Zealand growers don’t use much pesticide even on conventional fruit, she said, since growers often produce kiwifruit on family farms with houses nearby.

“They’re not going to be overzealous with their pesticide usage,” Moody said.

Sales manager Kurt Cappelluti of Stellar Distributing Inc., Madera, Calif., said he’s not sure why, but sales of the company’s organic kiwifruit have not been stellar.

“I sell a ton of organic items,” he said, including grapes and pomegranates, but organic kiwifruit sales have been so bad that last year the company ended up not marketing some of its organic kiwifruit as organic.

Still, the firm will market about 30,000 trays of organic kiwifruit this season.

“If it doesn’t make sense, I might not do it after this year,” Cappelluti said.

Posner sees a bright future for the organic kiwifruit category, as well as the organic category as a whole.

“Organic produce has seen strong growth since it first began, and that growth has continued, even throughout the current recession, and we only expect it to continue growing in the future,” he said.