The living produce category remains quite small in comparison to others in most retail stores, typically only one rack or less, according to Marc Clark, executive vice president of Rocket Farms Inc., Salinas Calif., but it continues to fill a demand with consumers, and there is growth.
“Demand is pretty strong,” Clark said, but there are definitely challenges that come with that.
“One of the issues is that as freight becomes more expensive, it becomes a larger portion of the retail cost,” he said. “The herbs are large, and you have to be careful with handling. Plus they take up a lot of space.”
Still, business is good for living produce companies.
“It seems to be growing a good 10% every year, from what I’ve seen,” said Rob Arnold, vice president of marketing for Luurtsema Sales Inc., Jenison, Mich.
He expects the growth to plateau at some point, he said, but there are a lot of reasons for growth right now, namely the economy.
“People think they can save money by growing their own, yes, but also people are staying home more, and this is a hobby they can do,” he said.
Demand is increasing, especially in urban areas, where people don’t have as easy access to land for gardening.
Arnold has seen increased demand in rural areas as well, where people could be gardening on their own.
“They are probably doing both,” he says, “but we’ve seen both extremes of the country and the city that want these products.”
Another reason for the category’s popularity likely stems from consumers’ desire for control over what products they eat.
“Scares with foodborne illness have caused people to like to be in control,” Arnold said.
Food safety concerns are actually much different with living produce than with traditional fresh produce.
For one thing, in a garden issues typically revolve more around plant health than human health.
“We’re not really talking about human illness. Producing your own is a very safe option,” Arnold said.
Or course, living produce companies still take precautions with their products.
“We are well aware of requirements and are certified for food safety with an extensive food safety program,” said Serena Leiterman, marketing brand manager for North Shore Sales and Marketing Inc., Thermal, Calif.
Clark said his company is Global GAP-certified and has a food safety protocol above and beyond what’s required by the industry standards.
“The reality is that these products are food and need to be treated as such. Still, as living food it’s not handled in the same way. It’s susceptible to a lot fewer things than something that’s processed,” he said.
More and more consumer groups are looking for living options, Clark said.
“We’re trying to reach folks that aren’t necessarily gardeners but who want those benefits,” Clark said.
While younger, urban consumers make up a large portion of consumers of living produce, other groups are growing in interest too.
Leiterman agreed with the widespread value that living produce offers to various demographics, saying that living produce typically provides more of an experience to consumers than typical produce, making these products a good fit for high-end stores.
However, she said living products fit in well with smaller stores that don’t have a lot of fresh herb sales.
“Our produce stays on shelves longer, so it’s easier to have that offering. It fits pretty much any demographic,” she said.