Organic berries continue to see steady growth - The Packer

Organic berries continue to see steady growth

07/20/2012 12:35:00 PM
Tom Burfield

The popularity of organic berries continues to increase as some consumers tend to perceive them as more healthful than conventionally grown alternatives.

Strawberries seem to be the most popular organic berries, but other categories are enjoying increases as well.

In California, organic strawberries account for 1,951 acres or 5% of the state’s total strawberry acreage, according to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission. That’s a 17% increase from last year.

Organic volume is on the rise for California Giant Inc., Watsonville.

“We’re definitely trying to increase organic acreage each year,” said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.

“The only obstacle is finding ground and making sure we have the right location and the right grower to do the best job.”

Plant City, Fla.-based Wish Farms grows organic strawberries in its home state and will look at starting an organic program for its California program next year, said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer.

The company has “a pretty good-size” organic program for winter-spring blueberries and for its winter strawberries and wants to expand, he said.

Dole Berry Co. LLC, Watsonville, Calif./SunnyRidge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., has an organic blueberry program that it plans to expand, said Keith Mixon, president.

The program has experienced “good, steady growth,” and Mixon said he plans to expand into other commodities as the company gains experience cultivating organic berries.

Naturipe Farms LLC, Salinas, Calif., offers organic strawberries and blueberries year-round and organic raspberries and blackberries seasonally, said Vince Lopes, vice president of sales.

Lopes said the category can be challenging.

“Growth must be calculated carefully,” he said, especially for strawberries.

Because of the added costs to grow organic berries, the crops often sell below the cost of production during the peak of the season.

“If this continues, many growers will revert back to conventional, thus the need for careful, calculated growth,” he said.

During July and August, prices of organic and conventional strawberries get closer together, “which makes it more difficult for growers to make end meet,” Jewell said.

Dan Crowley, sales manager for Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville, said there is a premium for organic strawberries, “but not a huge gap.”

He estimated the spread between organic and conventional strawberries at $2-4, and seemed pleased with organic summer sales.

“It’s pretty much ‘demands exceeds’ though the summer,” he said.

Well-Pict uses some of the same growing techniques, such as integrated pest management and bug vacuums, for conventional strawberries that it uses for organic ones, Crowley said.

The firm only uses pesticides on berries “as a last-ditch effort,” he said.

Overall, sales of organic blueberries are on the rise, said Mark Villata, executive director of the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, Folsom, Calif.

“It is a growing sector,” he said.

However, growing organic blueberries in parts of Oregon can be a challenge, said Brian Malensky, director of fresh market sales for Oregon Berry Packing Co., Hillsboro.

The large amount of rain that west Oregon receives makes it just about impossible to grow organic blueberries, he said.

“We would love to do it, but a whole year’s crop could be wiped out if we received too much rain,” he said.

Brian Ostlund, executive director for the Oregon Blueberry Commission in Salem, said he has not seen as much growth in the category as he thought he would.

Growers in isolated production areas tend to have more luck keeping diseases and pests at bay and producing a nicer organic crop than those in denser production areas, he said.

He expects the state’s organic acreage to increase over time.



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