Organic strawberries account for 11.8% of the strawberry acreage in California, according to the California Strawberry Commission, and many growers say their volume has been holding steady or making small gains over the past few years.
“We’re increasing acreage every year as much as we can,” said Cindy Jewell, vice president of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms, Watsonville.
But the organic strawberry deal can be a challenge, she said, especially in the summer, when the price differential between organic and conventional fruit is minimal because so much fruit is in the market.
“There’s not always a premium for a grower to grow organic,” she said.
Statewide, organic acreage has been dropping, the strawberry commission said.
There are 3,991 acres of organic strawberries planted in the state this year, down from 4,166 acres last year.
Some say organic acreage has been overplanted.
Four or five years ago, the organic market was strong year-round, so growers started planting organic strawberries that were not committed to customers, said Paul Kawamura, director of sales for Irvine, Calif.-based Gem Pack LLC.
That led to an oversaturated marketed, especially in the summer, he said.
Now growers are starting to be more strategic as they plant organic berries, he said, which makes sense, since it’s riskier growing organically than conventionally.
“You’re more susceptible to disease, pests and a number of other factors,” he said.
About 10% of the strawberries that Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc. grows are organic, said Jim Grabowski, director of marketing.
Demand has been picking up for organic strawberries during the past few years after plummeting during the Great Recession, he said.
“Since the economy has gotten stronger, organic demand has picked back up,” he said. “It’s a strong market right now.”
Grabowski said he’s not sure how long the category will continue to grow.
“At some point, it’s probably going to level off,” he said, “but for the near future, I see it as a slow-growing, steady segment of the market.”
Jason Fung, category development director for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, believes that consumers’ cravings for organic strawberries will be around for a while.
Organic strawberries are in “constantly growing demand,” he said.
“The growth rate of organics within the berry category far exceeds the growth rate of the berry category as a whole,” Fung said.
There actually are two customer bases for organic strawberries, said Backus Nahas, director of marketing for Success Valley Produce LLC, Oxnard, Calif.
One is the traditional retailer, who orders conventional berries and then adds a few pallets of organic fruit as a complement.
The other is the retailer — sometimes a single store — who specializes in organics or natural foods.
Partners in Watsonville-based CBS Farms have about 15 years’ experience growing organic strawberries, said Charlie Staka, operations manager.
Organic volume at CBS Farms is holding steady at less than 10%, he said, enough to cover its customers’ needs.
Higher production costs
Organic strawberries, like other organic produce, sell at a premium, and no one expects that to change anytime soon, since growers must pay added production costs, he said.
“You can only do so much when it comes to pests and disease,” Jewell said.
“They are still going to be there, and the tools that you have to fight them are still limited,” Jewell said.
Growing on organic land gets more difficult as time goes on, Grabowski added.
“You can’t replenish the land fast enough organically to make it sustainable without chemicals,” he said, so yields get smaller every year, but costs remain the same.
Eventually, someone may find a way to keep costs from rising, he said.
“We haven’t figured it out yet.”