David Posner’s interest in organically grown produce began when he was but a teenager. It grew quickly into a passion, which continues to burn 40 years later.
That passion has served to alter the organic landscape of produce sections in markets throughout the U.S. and Canada.
It was a high school organic gardening class that planted the seed. When the teacher moved on simultaneously with Posner’s graduation, school administrators tabbed Posner to replace him as teacher. The school’s financial problems soon transformed the teenage teacher into a budding entrepreneur.
At his suggestion, Posner and his students developed a new revenue stream for the school.
“I took the vegetables to Santa Cruz to sell to retailers,” said Posner, now president and chief executive officer of Awe Sum Organics Inc., Capitola, Calif.
“What I couldn’t sell, I took to the farmers’ market.”
It was there Posner encountered a few other farmers who shunned the use of chemicals. Their fruits and vegetables soon found their way onto Posner’s truck.
“It didn’t look like conventional stuff, but it tasted really, really good,” he said.
The word spread. In short order, Posner’s truck was making deliveries to San Francisco — 75 miles away — and then it was on to Los Angeles, 350 miles distant. Stops in Santa Barbara and Sacramento followed.
Along the way, Posner added new growers in the San Joaquin Valley and in the California desert. As more and more retailers began stocking organic produce, Posner faced a dilemma: California growers could not supply his customers year-round.
“What we had on the shelf was what was in season locally,” Posner said. “My idea was to get them what they wanted, but couldn’t get.”
By the late 1970s, the concept took Posner to Mexico to source organic vegetables and tropical fruits. He was just getting started.
“I thought organics were going to go mainstream,” Posner said. “I firmly believed organic agriculture is sustainable agriculture, always putting back into the soil.”
His vision was to have enough organic produce to go around for everybody and at a reasonable price, but profitable for growers, he said.
California alone could not deliver enough produce for retailers to maintain organic sections year round. Good quality imports were the solution.
“He was smart enough to go to New Zealand,” said Tom Lively, senior account representative for Organically Grown Co., Clackamas, Ore., and an Awe Sum customer for 20 years.
“He was the first guy, I’m sure, to bring organic pears and apples from New Zealand.”
Soon to follow in the early 1980s were visits to growers in South America and Central America — and a major career change for Posner.
“It became too much to do the route and to source offshore fruit,” he said.
By 1985, Posner’s passion spurred him to sell his truck and route to Earl Herrick, longtime friend and founder-owner of Earl’s Organics Produce, San Francisco, and to found Farmers’ Fruit Express Inc., the original name of Awe Sum Organics.
“We’ve shared the passion for organic produce for more than three decades,” Herrick said.
“We’ve bought from and sold to one another for years. We started back in our long-hair days — well, back when we had hair.”
Today, Awe Sum Organics imports to the U.S. coasts annually nearly 1,000 containers of organic apples, pears, kiwifruit, mangoes, cherries and blueberries, Posner said.
It is North America’s largest importer of organic apples and kiwifruit from New Zealand, he said. But he stops short of calling Awe Sum a fruit broker.
“I’m really a grower sales agent,” Posner said.
Equal to his passion for fresh produce is his concern for the growers who supply Awe Sum. As the organic produce markets have matured in Europe and Asia, Posner has found himself playing the role of a consultant to his growers.
“It’s a balancing act. I’m trying to just take what I need to serve my customers,” Posner said.
“I want to make sure they have what they need for their other markets. I’m trying to position my growers so that they get the best returns for their crops.”
The positioning includes starting or wrapping up the import seasons as domestic production ends or begins.
A new dimension of the balancing act in recent years is the global recession. No longer can organic growers anticipate annual sales increases of 20% to 30%, Posner said.
“Consumption of organic fruit, as far as I know, isn’t down, but the growth isn’t there,” he said.
The struggling economy forces some shoppers to buy whatever is the cheapest, or even to forego fresh fruits and vegetables, Posner said.
“To a person of an organic mindset, fresh produce is essential to health. It’s not a luxury,” he said.
Posner has cautioned his growers that the premium between conventional and organic is probably going to go down, and that the price of conventional could go down, too.
Though Awe Sum’s relationships with its growers often date back years, Posner takes nothing for granted.
“I know the fruit we import is organic, because I visit every year,” he said. “I go to the fields. I meet with the growers and the workers, so I know how they operate.”
Protecting the environment is another of Posner’s passions, and he’s done his homework.
“The carbon footprint to bring a container of apples from New Zealand to the East Coast uses 1/9 the amount of fuel as would trucking those apples from coast to coast,” Posner said.
The name change from Farmers Fruit Express to Awe Sum came in 2008. It stems from the company’s Awe Sum label.
Another change in recent years, Posner said, is the fine line for growers between profit and loss. It’s a challenge that seems to reinforce his passion.
“I am seriously passionate about getting our growers and all organic growers a sustainable price for their products,” he said. “We must take care of our growers.”
Success for a company celebrating its 25th anniversary this year seems to come as a surprise to Posner — and to other organic produce pioneers.
“Many of us don’t even know why or how we got to this point,” he said.
“I do know what really drives sales is the flavor, and that’s why I believe so much in organics.”