Sales in the organic avocado category have been inching upward in recent years, much to the delight of California avocado growers.

Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., commands a significant portion of the state’s organic deal, said partner Bob Lucy.

The organic deal has worked out well on several levels for the company.

Philosophically, it’s a good idea, he said, but it also has provided an outlet for two of the firm’s major growers who converted to organic, and it’s helped Del Ray Avocado gain access to additional retailers.

“It’s been wonderful for us,” Lucy said.

Lucy said he was pleasantly surprised that the company’s organic program remained strong, without a lot of slippage, during the recession.

There were times when the usually premium-priced organic avocados approached the price of conventional product during the recession, said Dana Thomas, president of Index Fresh Inc., Bloomington, Calif. But sales of organic as well as conventional product survived the economic downturn relatively well at Index Fresh, he said.

The company has shipped organic avocados out of California for about five years and recently added a Chilean program.

Demand for organic avocados has grown as traditional retailers, not just specialty stores, add organic sections, said Bruce Dowhan, general manager of Escondido, Calif.-based Giumarra Agricom International LLC.

The company has a small but growing organic program that sources from several organic growers, he said.

Like many suppliers, Dowhan said he thought sales would drop off during tough economic times, but he said demand remained strong and the category performed well.

Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing for Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., said he was surprised to see the organic category continue to strengthen in recent years rather than drop off.

Avocados were “a little late to jump on board” the organic bandwagon, he said, but sales have been catching up quickly.

Prices tend to vary, with smaller sizes costing about $2-5 per box more than conventional fruit, Wedin said, and larger sizes — 48s and above — costing $6-7 more per box.

The organic program continues to grow at a slow but steady pace for Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, Calif., said Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing.

Organic avocados account for less than 3% of the company’s volume, perhaps in part because many consumers do not perceive avocados, which are grown in trees high off the ground and have a thick, protective skin, to pose as much of a food safety threat as some other commodities, he said.

The category continues to grow, however, due in part to retailers’ efforts to keep up with their competitors who offer organic fruit.

Henry Avocado Corp., Escondido, Calif., has had an organic program for a few years, and president Phil Henry said the results have been encouraging, as the category continues to grow.

At Interfresh Inc., Fullerton, Calif., organic accounts for about 5% of its total volume, but avocado salesman Brandon Gritters said customer requests for organic products seem to have increased this year.

Sales dipped only slightly during the recession for Eco-Farms Corp., Temecula, Calif., but they already seem to be bouncing back, said Steve Taft, president and chief executive officer.

However, he said prices that were very high last year seem to have dropped to a more moderate level this year.

Almost all national and strong regional chains now have displays of organic as well as conventional avocados, Wedin said.

“It’s almost become a must for them,” he said.

Bags are a good way to merchandise organic avocados, Lucy said, because organic cultural practices produce more size 60s and 70s than conventional growing methods, and bags are a convenient way to market that size of fruit.