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.
“We are finding psyllids, but there are no infestations in commercial groves in California so we haven’t had to treat for it yet, we’ve just been in quarantine,” Hathcock said.
“It’s a scary prospect, but they tell me that when we have to treat for psyllids, there will be an organic option for a spray,” he said. “They don’t have one yet but there are certain things that work … they’re looking at what would be the best kill rate and the most cost-effective.”
Consumer education is also key to the future of organics, Mabs said.
“Most people relate organic to lack of pesticides,” he said, “but it’s a lot more than that. It’s nutrition, how we manage the soil and fertilization, to create a good environment for the tree rather than feeding it nutrients that aren’t natural.”
Claire Smith, director of communications for Sunkist Growers, Bakersfield Calif., said Sunkist’s organic citrus program continues to grow with volume and varieties.
“Each year we have seen additional acreage transitioning into organic production,” she said. “Our estimates for this navel season, for example, are more than double last season’s numbers. Sunkist’s goal is to provide a consistent quality supply of organic citrus.”