Organics gain ground in California vegetables

02/28/2011 03:23:54 PM
Mike Hornick

SALINAS, Calif. — California organic produce has its long-established names — like San Juan Bautista-based Earthbound Farm, established in 1984 — but it’s a still-growing category that continues to draw new interest.

A common pattern is for vegetable growers to get their feet wet in the business with a handful of organic commodities, and if all goes well, to dive in deeper.

Two examples are The Nunes Co., Salinas; and Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard.

“Our biggest push is going to be a much-expanded line of organics,” said Doug Classen, Nunes sales manager. “Over the past year we had celery and romaine hearts in organic, but we’re growing. When we get back to Salinas (from the desert), we’ll have organic asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, iceberg, red-leaf and green-leaf lettuce.”

Nunes’ success with celery and romaine hearts helped spur the addition of commodities.

“We’ve had quite a few requests from our customer base to get into these other items,” Classen said. “It’s just a good time to grow that part of our business.”

Nunes has done so by converting land previously used for conventional growing and by adding organically certified acreage as well.

“We made arrangements with existing organic growers and transitioned some of our own land over the past few years,” Classen said.

In January, Deardorff Family Farms unveiled its new organics label, Deardorff Organics. In the three years leading up to the label’s introduction, Deardorff had averaged 15% annual sales growth in its organic commodities.

Deardorff’s organic acreage has grown from 50 to 400 and is now about 20% of the company’s total growing land. Just in the past year, 200 organic acres were added through long-term leases.

“We’ve been doing a little bit of organics for the past three years, just some celery and tomatoes,” co-owner Scott Deardorff said. “But this is the first year we’re broadening that line and offering many more commodities.”

The Deardorff Organics lineup includes celery, broccoli, romaine, leaf lettuces, cabbages, bok choy, spinach, cilantro, parsley, kale, daikon and chards.

By summer, the company plans to roll out roma and heirloom tomatoes under the label — as well as strawberries, said Scott Albertson, director of marketing and business development.

The moves reflect Deardorff’s commitment to sustainable agriculture in the urban Ventura County setting, he said. Packaging will be in 100% recyclable cartons and clamshells or fast-decomposing plastic for celery and lettuce bags.

Updates on Deardorff Organics will become available at the company’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/deardorfffamilyfarms.

Earthbound Farm isn’t sitting still, either.

For spring, the organics company has expanded its plantings of broccolette and plans to ship it in a variety of pack styles — from bunched to an 8-ounce tray wrap and a 2-pound club pack bag.

“Consumers seem to be embracing this cross between broccoli and Chinese kale,” said Samantha Cabaluna, director of communications at Earthbound Farm. “It’s more tender and sweet than broccoli.”

While Earthbound Farm’s winter salad operation churned away in Yuma, Ariz., the company expanded its San Juan Bautista facility. That’s added 14 docks for a total of 43, plus 49,000 new square feet of commercial space. Earthbound Farm’s overall square footage there is 270,000. It includes a facility for thermoforming clamshells.

“As Earthbound Farm’s business continues to grow, we’re ensuring that we’re building facilities sufficient to support that growth,” said Cabaluna.



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