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Not unlike other segments of the onion business, organics have felt some of the pain the COVID-19 coronavirus has dished out; however, sales continue to be stable, suppliers say.

“We are growing and selling organic Walla Wallas,” said Dan Borer, general manager for Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc. in Walla Walla, Wash. “That market is not as brisk as conventional.”

That may be the result of the economic pressures stemming from the virus outbreak, Borer said, noting that, in some cases, “I don’t think people think it’s necessary.”

In those instances, organics become more luxury than necessity, Borer said.

“When people don’t work or have their regular income, it’s one of those items — let’s face it, people are counting their pennies,” he said. “A lot of consumers that are on that fence, they pass.”

So, organic sales have seen some predictable declines, Borer said.

“I just don’t see the same brisk business we normally have on organic onions, and I don’t mean to say we don’t have bad business — it’s good,” he said.

Organic supplies may be down this year, too, as a result of COVID-19, Borer speculated.

“With more investment in an organic crop, I’ve got to believe people are going to be conservative in growing organic onions,” he said. 

“You put more into them. You can’t grow an organic vegetable (as easily as) you can an organic fruit. Anything grown in the ground is going to cost more to grow.”

The organic category does continue to show growth, nevertheless, said Mackenzie Mills, account manager with the Bancroft, Wis.-based Russet Potato Exchange Inc.

“Based on IRI information, organics and medium to large-size onions have continued to show relative strength versus total category growth and vice versa,” Mills said. 

“Conventional onions and small bags, less than 1 pound, are continuing their trends to show relative weakness versus total category growth. Most onion types have seen a change in character, as opposed to pre-pandemic, with yellows, reds and specialty onions now outperforming during the pandemic.”

Overall, organic onion sales continue to trend upward, said Jason Walker, general manager of Prosser, Wash.-based grower-shipper Bybee Produce LLC.

“It seems like there’s more demand for organics all the time,” he said. “Obviously, it’s with certain customers, but it’s trending upwards.”

Walker said he had not seen the coronavirus make much of a dent in organic onion sales.

“I haven’t seen anything different with organics versus conventional, when it comes to COVID-19,” he said.

There has been a trend toward more packaging, though, he said.

“That’s a direct reflection of retail accounts,” Walker said. “Most retail accounts are buying more bagged onions than foodservice.”

Bryon Magnaghi, Walla Walla-based produce trader with Seattle-based distributor FC Bloxom & Co., said organics remain a niche, but a strong one.

“As far as Walla Walla sweet onions, there’s only one (organic) grower, and that demand is very good,” he said. 

Magnaghi said he was not sure how that pertained to the pandemic.

“I think organic onions in general are increasing in demand, and I think part of that is due to COVID,” he said. 

“People just want to be more aware of the products that they’re buying, what they perceive to be safer products.”

 

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