PALM DESERT, Calif. — Armed with new data from the 2017 Fresh Trends consumer survey, Greg Johnson and Pamela Riemenschneider kicked off the West Coast Produce Expo with a lively 45-minute interactive produce quiz show that examined consumer trends on avocados, kale, watermelon, berries and organic produce.

Johnson, editor of The Packer and editorial director of Farm Journal Media’s produce group, and Riemenschneider, editor of Produce Retailer, first took up statistics around the emergence of kale as a trendy item at the May 20 event.

Kale yes!

Using instant polling technology with radio frequency identification clickers, Riemenschneider asked the West Coast Produce Expo audience if they purchased kale. With 59% of the audience indicating they buy kale, she said The Packer’s Fresh Trends showed just 17% of about 1,000 consumers surveyed said they bought kale in the last year.

However, kale retail promotions are up more than 350% compared with five years ago and per-capita kale availability has surged 50% since 2000, Riemenschneider said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines availability as production, minus average shrink for specific commodities.

Kale is the No.1 purchased organic fresh produce category, with more than 50% of consumers stating they buy organic exclusively or buy both organic and conventional kale, according to Fresh Trends.

Even so, total per-capita availability of kale is just 0.6 pounds per person, Riemenschneider said.

While everyone wants to know what the “next” kale is, she said the kale boom isn’t over yet.

“It is something that is still growing and people are buying kale,” she said.

Johnson said that 52% of consumers bought watermelon in the past year, according to Fresh Trends. Somewhat surprisingly, highest income consumers were the biggest consumers, with 63% of those making over $100,000 per year indicating watermelon purchases in the past year.

“Who doesn’t eat watermelon?” he said. “And yet it is stratified with income levels way more than I would have thought.”

Fresh Trends shows that only 6% of consumers say they buy only organic watermelon, with another 12% indicating at least occasional purchases of organic watermelon.

Retail scan data, Johnson said, show that consumers may be overestimating organic watermelon consumption. The latest data shows only 0.1% of watermelon sales dollars are from organic watermelon.

USDA retail data from 2016 show that top promotion weeks for watermelon were the obvious summer holidays, with pre-July 4 promotions in 22,000 stores topping Memorial Day’s 17,700 and Labor Day’s 15,000 stores promoting watermelon.

USDA data show watermelon is five times as likely to be promoted by the “each” compared to priced by the pound.

Riemenschneider said fresh-cut watermelon sales, including fresh-cut organic watermelon sales, help skew the demographics toward higher income consumers.

“That’s where we think the highest income group of shoppers are showing up big, because they are grabbing higher-priced fresh-cut watermelon,” Riemenschneider said.

Just over half of consumers say they purchased a mini or personal watermelon in the past year, according to Fresh Trends.

Brussels sprouts, cauliflower rising

Riemenschneider said cauliflower is a hot fresh category, citing Google trends of search terms associated with cauliflower as an ingredient (cauliflower rice, cauliflower mac and cheese, cauliflower pizza crust, cauliflower crumbles and more) were very strongly associated with first-of-the-year dieting and healthy eating resolutions.

According to Fresh Trends, 36% of consumers bought cauliflower in the past year and cauliflower retail promotions are up more than 20% in the past five years.

Using a group of shoppers that aligns with the demographics of the U.S. population, The Packer’s Fresh Trends analyzes demand based on gender, race, region, income, age and number of children.

For asparagus, Johnson said Fresh Trends shows that the Western U.S. was by far the top region for consumption and the highest income group is three times more likely than the lowest income group to purchase the vegetable, he said.

The vegetable, now at 1.5 pounds per capita, has experienced a 60% increase in availability since 2000.

With current per capita levels of 0.6 pounds per person, Riemenschneider said Brussels sprouts have shown a 100% increase in availability since 2000, the highest percentage gain of any vegetable. Fresh Trends shows 20% of consumers said they purchased Brussels sprouts in the past year, and Riemenschneider said its inclusion in salad mixes also is building demand.

Berry and avocado power

Riemenschneider said that 35% of consumers purchased only organic blackberries and blueberries, compared with 32% organic only numbers for raspberries and 28% for strawberries.

Retail data from 2016 shows that berries accounted for a whopping 20% of retail sales, up 6% from 2015. Though strawberries remain the volume leader, Riemenschneider said retailers are increasingly promoting raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.

Avocados are still surging among consumers, with Fresh Trends showing that 40% of shoppers bought avocados in the last year. In the latest survey, consumers say avocados are the No.1 item they buy now that they did not buy previously. As expected, Western U.S. consumers are far more likely to purchase avocados than in any other. The data showed that 53% of consumers in the West said they bought avocados in the last year compared with 31% in the Northeast.

High prices for avocados last fall resulted in a big increase in sales of smaller avocados in bags, Riemenschneider said.

Organic boom

Organic sales will account for at least 10% of produce sales in 2017, Riemenschneider said.

“I see retailers all over the country, but everyone is coming up with 10% at least,” she said.

Organic berry sales in 2016 accounted for 11% of all berry sales, growing 27.3% over 2015 levels.

For the salad category at retail, Fresh Look Marketing shows that 56% of salad dollars are organic. Another top organic performer is carrots, with 56.4% of all sales. Some categories still lag, Riemenschneider  said; less than 1% of watermelon sales are organic.

Johnson said The Packer has more information coming on organic trends in coming months, leading up to the debut of The Packer’s Global Organic Produce Exposition & Conference in Hollywood, Fla., Jan. 25-27.