There"s basically one direction to look in the hunt for organic apples: West.

Washington State is home to about 98% of organic apple production in the U.S., according to the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association.

The reason is simple, apple marketers in the Midwest and East say.

"We get over 40 inches of rain and, as a result, we get a large population of birds and bees and also insects that feed on fruits and vegetables," said John Rice, vice president of Rice Fruit Co., a Gardners, Pa.-based grower-shipper.

There are also are fungal diseases that Rice and other growers choose to fight with synthetic sprays, which are considered more focused and effective.
"They become inactive in just a few days, and nobody has to worry about the toxic effects of the sprays anymore," Rice said.

There are a few growers outside Washington who are attempting organic production.

"We do have a few that are growing that way, but one of the challenges is we have a lot of water, and that makes it pretty difficult to grow organic," said Diane Smith, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Apple Committee.

Growers say they recognize the potential profits to be had in the organic category. According to the Organic Trade Association"s annual survey in 2015, sales of organic food and non-food products in the U.S. set a record in 2014, totaling $39.1 billion, up 11.3% from the previous year.

"Boy, that"s another tough one," Peter Forrence, partner in Peru, N.Y.-based Forrence Orchards Inc., said about the practicality of organic production.

"We"d like to be involved."

Forrence said his operation has tried organic production in the past but had difficulty selling it.

"When it"s ultimately grown, it doesn"t look very good," he said.

The price premium on organics also can be problematic, said Tom Labbe, sales manager/domestic accounts with Jack Brown Produce in Sparta, Mich.
"There"s growth every year, but it"s very small," he said.

"On the retail end, they want organic they don"t want to pay for it. It has to be available in case people do want it. But other than that, mainstream apples are healthy to begin with. Just because they"re organic wouldn"t make much of a difference just an added cost."

Rice said organic production would require more frequent spraying.

"The organic growers use organic compounds that aren"t as effective," Rice said.

About 30% of sliced apple production at Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak is organic and getting fruit at a reasonable price can be a challenge, said Tony Freytag, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

"We have always offered organic items and we will continue to do so because there is a segment of the population that is very passionate about that choice," he said.

Where organic apples can grow, they seem to flourish. Wenatchee, Wash.-based fruit grower-shipper Stemilt Growers LLC has increased organic production annually for years, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

"Stemilt is a leader in organic tree fruit and we were the first to market in scale starting in 1989," Pepperl said.

"We continue to see huge growth especially in the varietal apples like Piñata, Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, fuji and gala."

Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, Wenatchee, also is heavily involved in organic apple production, said Scott Marboe, marketing director.

"Potential is strong and continues to see long-term growth," he said.

Wenatchee-based Columbia Marketing International launched the Daisy Girl brand three years ago, dedicated specifically to organics, said Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing.

Lutz said Daisy Girl is the top-selling brand of organic apple, "which we think is a reflection of how retailers and consumers have embraced that product."

CMI markets Daisy Girl with a touch of glitz, which might seem counterintuitive in the organic category, Lutz said.

"The conventional wisdom on organic is everything has to be minimalist, or earth-friendly. You end up with paper tote bags and low-graphic packaging and you don"t put much emphasis on the branding," Lutz said.

Daisy Girl, instead, offers "bright, vibrant colors" on packaging and a product line that extends across multiple varieties and includes a "super-premium" level of product, Lutz said.

"We"re co-branding with Kiku and Ambrosia on our organic products, and we"re developing a product with appeal to the mainstream organic shopper in Safeway, Albertson"s, Kroger," Lutz said.

"Those are the people you can really market to in a supermarket environment, and that"s what the Daisy Girl branding does so well."

Organic apples are finding their way into the export market, as well.

"As you can imagine, the U.S. market is No. 1 and Canada, No. 2, but there"s also a pocket of organic opportunities in the U.K. and growing interest in Taiwan and Singapore for organic fruits," said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington State Apple Commission, Wenatchee.

The organic export market is still no more than a niche deal for the present, Fryhover said.

"You look at an industry that"s 7.5%, with most going to the domestic market, there isn"t a pressing need to export, but there are countries that are demanding it, and our producers and packers are supporting that," he said.

The category growth will continue, said David Nelley, executive category director for apples, pears and Northwest cherries with the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppenheimer Group.

"The organic demand is here to stay, and I see it playing a greater role in the overall market," he said.

 
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