The organic train keeps chugging along. While category growth slowed a bit during the recession, organic sales have resumed their growth patterns of the pre-recession marketplace, said Maryellen Molyneaux, president and managing partner of Harleysville, Pa.-based Natural Marketing Institute.

Sales of organic fruits and vegetables continue to drive the U.S. organic food market, accounting for 35% of the $29 billion total tallied for organic sales in 2012, according to the Battleboro, Vt.-based Organic Trade Association’s 2013 Organic Industry Survey.

Recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service show a 209% increase in certified organic acres of vegetables, fruits and tree nuts from 1997 to 2011.

“It’s the fastest growing area in the produce department,” said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer of Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla.

Wish Farms has seen gains in just about every organic commodity, Wishnatzki said.

Organics suffered more than conventional produce during the recession, he said, but sales not only have recovered, but now exceed prerecession levels.

The category is growing as more organic items become available, said Matt Seeley, vice president of marketing for The Nunes Co. Inc., Salinas, Calif.

As growing and cultural practices improve, the industry will continue to see even better quality and greater yields, he said.

In the organic berry category, Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC, Estero, Fla., said prices have been 8% to 12% stronger than 2012 — even more in some cases.

“Demand has been strong for organics across the board the entire year,” he said.

The number of heavy users has jumped from 10% to 15%, he said, and the numbers of moderate users has increased, as well.

“It’s absolutely new customers coming into the category that is driving that additional demand,” he said.

The apple category also is growing, said Matt Roberts, sales manager for Viva Tierra Organic Inc., Sedro-Woolley, Wash.

“Business is good,” he said.

Washington’s organic apple crop is a little lighter this season than last seasion, he said, leading to higher demand and higher prices.

The category has been good for growers the past couple of years, and Roberts said he expects to see more apple growers transition to organic.

Organic apples and pears are experiencing “unprecedented high sales” at Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

“Double-digit increases in consumer pick-ups, (coupled) with flat organic orchard growth in our state, is causing higher pricing, greater demand and lack of supplies as we eventually get to late winter,” he said.

Pepperl anticipates very tight apple supplies for 2014 with few new supplies for a couple of seasons for Stemilt as well for as the Washington industry. 

Organic sales are growing steadily every year for Earl’s Organic Produce, San Francisco, said Patrick Stewart, operations manager.

Even during the worst of economic times, sales tend to remain flat rather than decreasing, he said.

Kale has been one of the biggest organic growth items over the past year, he said.

At Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif., packaged greens continue to drive growth in the organic category, said Samantha Cabaluna, vice president of communications and marketing.

The company conducted some consumer research that indicated that people who eat organic salad greens “are looking for things that are better in general,” she said.

People who buy organic salads eat salad greens an average of 22 times a month, whereas people who purchase non-organic salads are eating them about 12 times a month, she said.

“That’s a huge difference.”