With prices for organic citrus running well above conventional, it’s been a while since anyone told Garff Hathcock he was crazy.
“Organic is about sustainability, which is fairly well-accepted now everywhere you go, said Hathcock, division manager for organic citrus at Corona College Heights Orange and Lemon Association, Riverside, Calif.
The 110-year-old nonprofit citrus cooperative has 65 to 70 large organic grower-members tending 4,000 acres in California and Arizona, he said. That represents 20% of the fruit packed and marketed by CCH.
“Ten years ago, people thought we were nuts,” he said. “Now it’s a commodity, and it’s here to stay.”
Though no longer growing by 35% a year, organic citrus is still seeing 15% growth in a rough economy, and it continues to expand, Hathcock said.
Last year, CCH packed about 850,000 cartons, he said, and he expects to hit 1 million cartons this year, with prices running a little higher than last year. Next year, the company will begin focussing on its organic clementines and murcotts coming into production.
Being able to offer a continuous supply of organic citrus has brought more big retailers on board compared to a decade ago, Hathcock said.
“We offer a season-long pull on every variety we offer, and more retailers than ever are carrying organic citrus,” he said. “While large retailers are buying direct, a lot still go through distributors and wholesalers.”
For the first time, CCH is offering organic minneolas, murcotts and gold nuggets in a new 5-pound box called California Petite.
“This is only the third year these varieties have been around organically,” he said, “and we felt this retail-ready pack is the best way to introduce them to the marketplace.”
The boxes were shipped across North America beginning the first week of January, with retails expected at $5.99 to $8.99 depending on the variety.
Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, Calif., whose organic navel program is growing 30% a year, is also helping retailers better display the company’s oranges, grapefruit and lemons, said marketing director Scott Mabs.
“We’ve developed a new triwall bin that can hold our bags or bulk fruit, and gives consumer information about organics,” said Mabs. “We also offer a high-graphic display bin, similar to those used in the conventional industry, that can be replenished and would be in the store for a long period of time.”
Like all organic growers, Hathcock and Mabs are concerned about the effect that greening disease or HLB, will have on their business.