While the growth rate is cooling slightly from 2015, organic produce sales were up strongly in 2016.
Gaining 8.4% compared with the previous year, organic fruit and vegetable sales increased to $15.6 billion in 2016, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2017 Organic Industry Survey. 
By way of comparison, organic fruit and vegetables sales in 2015 were $14.4 billion, up 10.5% from 2014, according to the 2016 OTA Organic Industry Survey.
The fruit and vegetable sector accounted to nearly 40% of all organic food sales in 2016, and the 8.4% growth rate compares with the overall 3.3% gain for total fruit and vegetable sales, according to a news release from the OTA.
While the OTA estimate includes both fresh and processed organic fruits and vegetables, the Organic Trade Association said in an e-mail that fresh produce has generally accounted for around 90% of the organic fruit and vegetable sales, with the remaining sales accounted by canned, frozen, or dried organic fruits and vegetables.
The survey, produced in February and March by Nutrition Business Journal for the Organic Trade Association, said that organic fruits and vegetables now make up almost 15% of the produce that Americans eat.
The OTA survey places overall organic food sales at $43 billion, up $3.3 billion or 8.4% higher compared with the previous year. That is well above the nearly flat 0.6% growth in total food sales, according to the release. The survey, available for purchase online, shows that organic food now accounts for 5.3% of total food sales.
“The organic industry continues to be a real bright spot in the food and ag economy both at the farm-gate and check-out counter,” Organic Trade Association CEO and executive director Laura Batcha said in a news release.
Batcha said there are challenges to the category’s growth.
“We need more organic farmers in this country to meet our growing organic demand, and the organic sector needs to have the necessary tools to grow and compete on a level playing field,” she said. “That means federal, state and local programs that help support organic research, and provide the organic farmer with a fully equipped tool kit to be successful.”
Disparity in estimates
The survey numbers from the organic association differ widely from the United Fresh Produce Association’s FreshFacts on Retail report, which pegged organic produce sales at retail (not including processing or foodservice outlet sales) at $4.46 billion in 2016, up 13.2% from 2015. What’s more, the United Fresh numbers — from Nielsen Fresh — said organic sales in 2016 accounted for 9% of all fresh produce sales. The 9% organic market share number from FreshFacts is 40% below the OTA’s 15% estimate for organic’s share of the produce market.
According to The Packer’s 2017 Fresh Trends survey, about 28% of about 1,000 consumer polled said they “typically” buy some organic produce when they shop.
Catherine Greene, economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said 2014 estimates from the agency using IRI retail scan data put the market share of organic vegetables at about 7% and organic fruit at about 6%. The USDA estimates for organic penetration may be a little low, she said, considering rising imports of organic fruits and vegetables, the organic price premium at retail and climbing organic production in the U.S.
Greene said that the USDA relies on estimates from the Nutrition Business Journal to help shape their total estimate of the organic food market. Those annual estimates of retail organic food sales from the Nutrition Business Journal — which are distinct from the OTA survey — are typically about 8% lower than the estimates found in the annual Organic Trade Association’s survey,
The Organic Trade Association survey — polling 200 companies and various data sources — is the most inclusive estimate for organic sales and the most accurate, the association claims. While the Nielsen Fresh estimate primarily looks at scan data from conventional supermarkets, the OTA survey includes mass market stores (which includes the conventional retail supermarket chains, mainstream grocery stores, big box stores, and warehouse clubs) as well as national organic/natural grocery chains and regional organic/natural/health food stores. The OTA estimate also includes farmers markets and online sales, according to the group.
The OTA survey, according to the association, has been finding for the past few years that over 50% of organic food sales are now through mass market retailers, around 40% through natural/specialty retailers and around 10% through farmers markets and other channels like online sales.