The economy may be struggling, but many consumers still demand their organic citrus, says John Stair, domestic commodity manager for Pacific Organic Produce/Purity Organic, San Francisco.

“I have not seen a decrease of any kind, only an increase in organic navels,” Stair said.

That trend will continue as consumers continue to find ways to include healthful, fresh organic fruit as part of their diet and lifestyle, he said.

He attributed much of the increase in organic sales to greater consumer acceptance and greater availability at retail as organics move away from being a “fringe segment.”

“The category has become more mainstream than it ever has before,” he said.

However, he said the citrus category, especially valencia oranges, did take a hit during the summer, as consumers turned to more seasonal items, like tree fruit.

The company ships organic navels, grapefruit and lemons.

Steve Taft, president of Eco-Farm Corp., Temecula, Calif., said that, although sales remain “decent,” the organic category has suffered a bit during the recession.

“It’s a little bit more sluggish on the organic citrus than it has been in the past,” he said.

Organic citrus is priced higher than conventional product, which makes it difficult for families who are pinching pennies to buy the firm’s valencias, navels, minneolas, lemons and grapefruit.

Still, a lot of interest remains in organic produce, he said, and more mainstream supermarkets are carrying it than in the past.

“I think sales will pick up as the economy picks up,” Taft said.

Some grower-shippers may not offer organic programs, but they do emphasize sustainability and reduced pesticide use.

It makes economic sense to grow sustainably and to forego the use of chemicals, said Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing for Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif.

The company spends a lot of time and money analyzing the needs of each of its ranches, he said.

Sales manager Doug Sankey said SunWest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, Calif., is a leader in sustainability.

The Protected Harvest Program, Soquel, Calif., monitors growing practices, chemical usage and social commitment and has given the company its sustainable certification, he said.

SunWest even has a special Zeal label that emphasizes to consumers in the U.S. and overseas that its product is environmentally friendly.

Organic citrus should start shipping around the same time as conventional citrus.

Homegrown Organic Farms, Strathmore, Calif., expected to start picking navels in the first 10 days of November, similar to last year, said Scott Mabs, director of marketing. Mandarins should start in mid-November followed by satsumas. The company plans to have a block of clementines for the first time this year.

“It won’t be a large amount this year, but it will be something to get started with,” he said.

Citrus sales more stable than other organicsPacific Organic’s lemons out of the desert could be down 25% this season, Stair said.

“There was a freeze last winter which affected the set for the upcoming crop,” he said.

Lemon shipments began the week of Oct. 3, and grapefruit started the week of Oct. 17.

The company’s grapefruit deal likely will be similar to last year’s 50,000 cartons because the firm added acreage to compensate for freeze losses.

The firm plans to ship about 40,000 cartons of lemons, which should peak on a relatively small 140 count size. Grapefruit size should be larger than last year. Navels were expected the first week of November, and they should peak on 56 to 72 count.

Eco-Farm plans to start picking its organic navels in the San Joaquin Valley in November and in January in the Temecula area, Taft said. The company ships minneolas from January until March or April and offers valencia oranges from April until October or November.