Owner Earl Herrick (left) and Fernando Solarzano, both of Earl's Organic Produce, show off Tutti Frutti organic heirloom tomatoes.
Owner Earl Herrick (left) and Fernando Solarzano, both of Earl's Organic Produce, show off Tutti Frutti organic heirloom tomatoes.

SAN FRANCISCO — From its “birthplace” in Marin County, Calif., in the 1970s, organic produce has evolved from being an alternative lifestyle choice to a mainstream and legitimate industry.

At the same time, some of the philosophies that drove the original movement, such as getting closer to food sources, seeking more flavor and being more environmentally conscious, are entwined in the current organic trend.

Earl Herrick, owner of San Francisco-based Earl’s Organic Produce, has seen sales of organic produce grow every year since he started the company 26 years ago. Before that, he was a buyer of organic produce in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Even during the economic downtown, we’ve grown through that,” he said.

“Some of that is the advantage of being in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the standard of living is quite high and the mentality around organics is quite mature here.”

He also credited Whole Foods for introducing organics to the masses.

“Whole Foods made the change by being successful going public, which really was a statement that you can be successful and make money selling organics,” Herrick said.

“It gave credibility to the industry and the bigger (retail) markets started to follow. Virtually every store in the Bay Area now has some organics, and it’s no longer an alternative lifestyle. It’s very much integrated into the stores.”

Karen Salinger, co-owner of San Francisco-based Veritable Vegetable, said she has seen organic sales grow not just in Northern California but nationwide in the 40 years since her company was founded.

The industry has undergone immense changes during the past four decades, with one of the more recent drivers being juicing, she said.

“There’s this huge push right now with all of these juice companies — they’re just coming out of the woodwork,” Salinger said.

With a focus on health, many of these companies demand quality, organic produce.

Another emerging trend involves delivery, whether it’s boxes of organic produce to the doorstep or completely cooked meals, she said.

Nathan Farray, an organics salesman with Washington Vegetable Co., San Francisco, said he’s seen sales climb as much as 20% in just the year and a half he’s been with the company.

“We’re seeing more people coming in looking for organic,” he said. “This is definitely a huge area for it, and it’s an ever-emerging market.”

Organic fruits, such as peaches and apples, also are hot items.

“This is the first year we’ve had organic peaches and nectarines from Hollister, and we moved a ton of them,” Farray said.

The one challenge is that some organic items tend to be more fragile than their conventional counterparts, he said.

Pete Carcione, owner of Carcione’s Fresh Produce Co. Inc., South San Francisco, said he’s noticed similar trends.

Scott Salisbury, who with partner Larry Balestra owns S&L Wholesale Produce Co., San Francisco, said he carries a selection of organic items at customers’ request.

“Organics continue to be something we have to carry,” he said.

“We sell a lot of berries, mainly Driscoll’s, and it’s mainly because our customers ask us to carry them.”