Organic berries fight for their market share

05/12/2011 02:09:00 PM
Cynthia David

As conventional and organic growers increase organic acreage for blueberries and strawberries, the market appears to be strong enough for all comers.

Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainier Fruit Co. Inc., Yakima, Wash., said 75% of Rainier’s blueberry fields are now either certified organic or in transition, giving the company a marketing edge.

“Especially in July, when we’re competing with other parts of the country, that’s where our organic berries are going to find their niche,” she said.

As organic volume increases, prices at retail have come much closer to conventional products, she said.

On the East Coast, meanwhile, Sunny Valley International, Glassboro, N.J., which sells fruit for growers in the Jersey Fruit Cooperative, expects a 10% to 15% increase in organic blueberry production from its grower, who packs under the Little Buck label.

“As a general trend, there are more people getting into organic blueberries,” said Philip Neary, Sunny Valley’s director of operations and grower rela-tions. “We tend to do pints after the Fourth of July — some Michigan sup-pliers are getting started at that point and North Carolina and Georgia still might have supplies.”

While the cool spring weather hurt strawberry volume, it also kept organic prices higher than normal, said Peter Oill, sales manager of Pacific Ridge Farms, Oxnard, Calif., which farms 150 acres of certified organic strawberries.

Oill said Pacific Ridge hopes to add about 50 organic acres in the next year and may plant blueberries and raspberries.

Though the organic market is steady after hitting a bump in the recession, Oill said the summer could be challenging as sky-high oil prices combine with the normal slowdown in organic sales once local berries ripen on the East Coast and in Canada.

“When people are spending more money and aren’t making as much they’re not going to pay for more expen-sive items, so it could be a problem for organics again,” he said.

Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Berries, Watsonville, Calif., said he’s seen a noticeable increase in demand for organic strawberries after several seasons of supply outpacing demand.

Well-Pict now has more than 10% of its strawberry production in organics, he said, spread over three districts, and it plans to increase acreage over time as the land transitions into organic.

Another company optimistic about organics is Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard, Calif., which planted its first 25 acres of organic strawberries this year east of Oxnard to complement its 125 conventional acres. It packs under the Deardorff Organic label.

“It’s a small deal, but it’s proving very popular with good demand and nice quality,” said sales manager David Cook. “It should go until mid-May, but it could go to the end of May, it’s hard to say.”

Last year was the first year San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce had a year-round organic strawberry program, from Baja Califor-nia to Watsonville.

“It was a bit nerve-wracking because we didn’t know how strawberries, let alone organic strawberries, were going to fare in the marketplace under last year’s severe economic conditions,” said Mark Munger, vice president of market-ing.

“Our customers responded well, so this year we’ve upped the acreage in Baja,” Munger said. “Finding unused land there is easy, so it can be certified organic instantly.”

Organics now represents 5% of the company’s acreage, he said. Some Baja fields are covered in screened shade houses to keep out pests.



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