A growing national appetite for organics and a climate amenable to growing fruits and vegetables without the aid of artificial fertilizers and pesticides is causing the category to surge in the Coachella Valley, growers and shippers there say.

About half of the 200 acres at Thermal, Calif.-based Drake Larson Sales is organic, said Drake Larson, president of the family-owned company that markets grapes under the Dragon Grapes label.

He said he first got into organic production in the late 1970s, and the category has had fits and starts.

“It was kind of hit and miss and basically since ‘86 on, we’ve grown organically,” he said.

He said organic production is rewarding, but it also requires commitment — and investment.

“But it’s kind of growing the old-fashioned way,” he said.

The surging popularity of organic produce has made this a good time to be involved in the category, Larson said.

“It’s an interesting thing because people are looking for it,” he said.

A grower has to be prepared for the challenges of organic production, Larson said.

“There’s so many things you can’t put on organic that would make it look a little nicer — plus, you spend a lot more time hoeing and doing labor things and you have to cull out an occasional worm here and there,” he said.

Other attributes of organics compensate, he said.

“It’s an interesting thing because I really think organics have a great flavor and are really safe,” he said.

Some grower-shippers in the desert aren’t as focused on the organic category because it’s not their market, but things could change, said Daren Van Dyke, director of sales and marketing with Five Crowns Marketing, based in Brawley, Calif.

“I think we like the organic deal, but we’re not one that has a super-large organic ground base,” he said. “That’s not really what our emphasis is, but I would say I would see that as a gradual increase over the next few years.”

Bakersfield, Calif.-based Anthony Vineyards has devoted a portion of its grape production to organics since 2002, said Rob Spinelli, salesman.

“We’ve been growing and progressing every year, and it’s probably 30% of our production now,” Spinelli said.

Some have thought of organics as more fad than trend but are learning differently, Spinelli said.

“Retailers are growing the category, not just grape but as a whole, 30% to 40% a year and some guys even higher,” he said.

Organic production comprised only about 10% of Anthony Vineyards’ total production as recently as five years ago, Spinelli estimated.

“Anthony Vineyards has made a commitment to the organic program, so we can offer customers a full program from May to December without any gaps,” he said.

That’s important to retail customers, he said.

“When people started getting into organics, what happened was, you’d have these five or six different shippers because these people didn’t have a full cohesive program,” he said.

He noted that suppliers would have organics for short periods and then get out, only to bring back more a short time later.

“For some growers, they’re still that way, but for us, we’re streamlined all the way across,” he said. “Every week, we’re going to have some type of organic grape.”

Monterey, Calif.-based Westfresh Distributing has been dabbling more in organic vegetables each year, said Kirk Pohl, president.

“I actually had been looking for several years for someone to do organics in Coachella,” he said.

Demand for the product is strong, particularly on packaged greens, Pohl said.

“I see that as a growing category, and the same is true in organic squash,” he said.

Westfresh has responded by increasing its organic volumes, Pohl said.

“We’ve not gone crazy with this stuff, but we’re definitely increasing our volume in a small way in both spring and fall every season out of Coachella,” he said.

The demand for organic vegetables will “absolutely” continue on its growth trajectory, Pohl said.