( Photo courtesy Markus Winkler; Graphic by Brooke Park )

Organic produce plays a role in the Chicago market, but that role may not be as pronounced as it is the West and the East. And even in the Midwest, some distributors seem to have varying degrees of success with the category.

Organic potatoes have been around for a long time at Agrow Fresh Produce Co. in Chicago, and the category continues to grow, said Ed Romanelli, vice president of sales and marketing.

The annual rate of growth is not in the 20% or 30% range, he said, “but they are growing.”

“I think more people have jumped on the bandwagon and started using organic,” he said.

The 3-pound size seems to be the most popular retail package for the company’s russet, red and Yukon gold organic potatoes, he said.

JAB Produce Inc. doesn’t get a lot of requests for organic produce at its location on the Chicago International Produce Market, said owner Steve Serck.

“We don’t find the demand for organic down here as great,” he said.

He did say the company sells some organic carrots.

Serck said Whole Foods, which specialize in organic produce, tends to source organics itself, bypassing the market.
“They don’t look down here for organic shorts,” he said.

Chicago-area retailers may carry some organics for customers who prefer organically grown produce, he said, but “no one competes head-to-head on organic with Whole Foods.”

At Sun Belle Inc., Schiller Park, Ill., Janice Honigberg, president and founder, said, “(Organics) seems to be an increasing area of interest in the marketplace.”

During the holidays, the company offers biodynamically grown organic cranberries from Wisconsin to accompany its biodynamic organic blueberries from Chile, Peru and, soon, from Mexico.

Biodynamics is a philosophy of growing in which the farm is treated as its own ecosystem, she said.

Compost comes only from product found on the farm, a certain percentage of the land is kept wild to increase its biodiversity, and “organic fertilizers are prepared at certain times of month and applied accordingly,” she said.

In other words, “There’s a lot of care taken in growing the product,” she said, “and it shows in the taste.”

Sun Belle offers organic pomegranate arils from Peru from February through August, and the company is boosting its organic raspberry, blackberry and strawberry programs, she said.

The company’s organic products are marketed under the Green Belle label rather than its usual Sun Belle brand.

Blue Creek Produce Co. Inc., St. Charles, Ill., offers organic grape, cherry and roma tomatoes, but about 90% are grape tomatoes packed in 10- and 20-pound boxes and clamshell containers, said owner Roger Riehm.

Foodservice operators and wholesalers often request bulk cartons, he said, while retailers typically ask for clamshells.

Riehm said that, while he sees a lot of stories about skyrocketing sales, he’s not sure the popularity of organic produce is that widespread.

“I feel that organic has not grown to the capacity that people are trending it to do,” he said.

Right now, he said he believes the category has “stabilized” and is most popular among certain segments, such as high-end stores with upper-income customers.

“There is a certain clientele that will pay for it,” he said.

As organic produce prices come more in line with conventional prices, organic becomes more attractive “to the average person who is on a tight budget and is conscious of their grocery bill,” he said.

But as prices drop, he said farmers may ask themselves whether it’s worth the time and effort to grow organically when they’re no longer taking in two times the cost to produce it.

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