( Courtesy Stemilt Growers Inc. )

It’s been 30 years since Tom Mathison transitioned his first conventionally grown apples to organic.

As his company, Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, Wash., celebrates three decades of its organic program, business still is booming — for Stemilt and for myriad other growers who have since gone organic.

“Our founder was way ahead of his time,” said Roger Pepperl, marketing director. “He was one of the pioneers in organic tree fruit.”

In 1989, those who ventured into organics did it very gingerly, perhaps devoting a half-acre or so to the category.

But Mathison, whom Pepperl termed “an organic innovator,” had a feeling this was something consumers would latch onto and, “He decided to go big.” 

“We quickly became the largest organic tree fruit grower in the country,” Pepperl said.

“Even today, we’re one of the largest organic apple, pear and cherry shippers in the world.”

Mathison chose to market his organic fruit under the Artisan Organics brand, a name that reflected “the true work ethic that has to go in to creating that product,” Pepperl said.

Anyone can grow organically, Pepperl said, but it takes a special skill to do it right.

Today, about 30% of Stemilt’s fruit is organically grown, and Pepperl believes that figure will be in the 50% to 60% range within 10 years.

But while many supermarkets, especially those that specialize in organic or natural food, help drive the growth of the organic category, some seem to be applying the brakes, Pepperl said.

“The biggest encumbrance today to retail sales is the retailers themselves,” he said.

When organic sales go from 1% or 2% up to 10%, retailers have to react to that change.

Cramming 25 items into a 3-foot organic section is not going to sell organics, he said.

Another organic faux pas retailers commit is selling 2-pound bags to reflect a lower price point.

“That’s wrong,” Pepperl said.

Almost all conventional apples are sold in 3- or 5-pound bags.

“A 3-pound unit on organic has got to be your minimum,” he said, adding that organic consumers will pay the higher price.

“Those people put their money on their food, not on some of the trinkets that some of the rest of us buy,” he said.

Stemilt is marking the 30th birthday of Artisan Organics apples by introducing a 5-pound resealable zipper bag of Artisan Organics gala, fuji and granny smith apples.

The company is shipping eight 5-pound bags in a high-graphic bag master carton, which is ideal for building quick displays at retail, Pepperl said.
“We’re trying to pull them out of that 2-pound market.”

The Packer’s Global Organic Produce Exposition & Conference (GOPEX) provides a forum to meet the rapidly changing needs of professionals who grow, distribute, pack and market organic produce. This international trade show and conference provides the ideal opportunity for organic produce professionals from around the world to network, exchange ideas, source new products and services, and do business with the industry's leading growers, distributors, packers, marketers and retailers. 

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