Organic strawberry acreage drops, but sales remain strong

03/25/2011 12:51:32 PM
Tom Burfield

California’s organic strawberry acreage is down slightly this year, according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, but growers say sales remain strong, despite the shaky economy.

California has 1,591 acres of organic strawberries this year, down from 1,730 acres in 2010, the commission reported.

Most of the decrease took place in the Oxnard district, which has 232 acres, down 244 from 2010. Orange County has 63 acres, 45 more than 2010.

Growers, it seems, are being careful not to overplant organic fruit and produce a market glut.

“We try to maintain a strong organic program to complement our conventional deal,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Inc., Watsonville.

“We’re very careful not to exceed the demand level for it.”

Although the company did add some acreage in the Santa Maria, Calif., area, Jewell said the company’s organic acreage generally stays consistent from year to year.

Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc. maintains its organic program at around 12% to 15% of its overall volume, said sales manager Dan Crowley.

“There is the ability to expand down the road if we see the need,” he said.

Growing organically is much more complicated than growing conventionally, Crowley added. Yields typically start out strong on virgin organic land, but they typically drop by about one-third.

“That’s always a bit of a challenge,” Crowley said. “We are still searching for the best solution to it.”

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce has increased its organic acreage in Baja California by about 15% this season in response to customer feedback, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

The company is in a strong position because certain markets have been waiting for this production to kick in, he said.

“We found that Baja is a real pristine area,” Munger said, “and it has been an optimal area for us to increase the organic program.”

Naples, Fla.-based Naturipe Farms has hired a product manager for the organic category — Keith Parker, formerly with Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif. — said Jim Roberts, Naturipe’s vice president of sales.

Although the firm grows most of its organic strawberries in the northern districts, the company kicks off the season in the south, he said.

Organic sales have not exactly skyrocketed during the economic downturn, but neither have they plummeted, grower-shippers said.

“There’s pretty much a core organic consumer that buys organic day-in and day-out,” Jewell said. “That really didn’t change much during the recession.”

As long as a retailer “has a palatable price point,” consumers won’t really turn away from organics, Crowley said.

“But once you get a big separation in price between organic and conventional, you may see a shift in your customer base to the cheaper berry.”

If the downturn had any effect, it may have been to pull organic and conventional price points closer together, he said.

“You just don’t see larger spreads as you have in the past,” Crowley said.

He added that settling prices also could be due to the increased availability of product and growers learning how to farm better and to get higher yields.

“That was always a big issue,” he said.

The growth of the organic category may have stumbled a bit recently, but there never was a time when organics went out of favor, Munger said.

“Our customers’ sales slowed,” he said, “but they definitely didn’t go backwards.”



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