Organic citrus remains a niche market - The Packer

Organic citrus remains a niche market

01/25/2010 11:46:00 AM
Bob Luder

When it comes to growing and consuming organic citrus, much depends on what area of the country is being considered.

Florida? Not so much. Texas? A little bit. California? Considerably more.

The reasoning is all quite practical.

The climate in Florida, with its hot, humid summers and often very wet spring and autumn seasons, make growing anything prohibitive without the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

“Florida is not big in organic,” said Richard Kinney, president of the Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland. “We get 50 inches of rain a year. That brings about a lot of weeds and pests. We do try to be prudent in the use of pesticides and fertilizers. But big commercial organic … we just don’t do it.”

Mark Hanks, vice president of sales and marketing for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, Fla., said he’s recognized some demand for organic citrus in his state, but agreed with Kinney’s assessment.

“It’s very hard to produce here,” he said.

There is some organic citrus growing in Texas, home to Austin-based Whole Foods Market Inc., a large organic retailer. But pest concerns also have put a damper on organic production there.

“There are a couple of organic producers down here, and they do quite nicely,” said John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission. “We have an annual issue down here with the Mexican fruit fly. That makes it a little more difficult because we can’t use malathion. But we use other things.”

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, Mission, said organic acreage in the state is growing, but out of 27,000 acres devoted to citrus, only about 1,000 are used for organics.

“It’s not easy being an organic producer,” McClung said. “But if you hit it right, you can do really well at it.”

Organics are a much bigger deal in California, where demand is higher and growing conditions are more organics-friendly. Still, to say organic production is widespread would be stretching it.

“Our organic area is increasing, but it’s not huge,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. “It goes in cycles in our industry. A lot of our acreage is contiguous, so it’s difficult to separate pesticide usage. There has been a lot of growth. We’ll see where it takes us. Right now, I’d say less than 5% of our business is organics.”

Paramount Citrus Association Inc. in Delano, Calif., sells organic navel and valencia oranges, said Scott Owens, vice president of sales and marketing.

“We have a fairly sizeable organics program,” he said. “But I’d call it a very specific niche program. Category size depends on specific retailer wants.”

Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., sells organic oranges, lemons and satsumas.

“It’s growing slowly,” said Claire Smith, corporate communications director for Sunkist. “There’s not a huge business, but we have new customers coming on board all the time. Most big retailers are into organics now. We’re selling it in all of our markets now.”

However, as one citrus grower in Mesa, Ariz., pointed out, a certain pesky pest recently has shown up in California as well as other citrus-producing regions around the country.

“With the Asian psyllid … what’s that going to do to the organic business?” asked Bill Faysak, manager of the Mesa Citrus Growers Association. “You have to use pesticides. Hopefully, consumers are wising up to the fact that, if it’s a packed piece of fruit, organic is not a huge issue.”



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