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Organic apple production is growing steadily in Washington state

by Lora Abcarian | January 10, 2011
Data gathered for the state of Washington, the nation's leading apple producer, show an unmistakable increase in organic production in recent years. According to the Charles Pomianek, director of the Wenatchee Traffic Association, organic growth has been steady since 2007.

During the 2007-08 season, organic apples accounted for 3.6 million boxes of the 98.7 million boxes marketed. Organic apples accounted for 5.6 million boxes of the 108-million box crop during 2008-09. Last season, organic apples accounted for 6 million boxes of the 102.7 million boxes marketed. On Dec. 1, 2010, the total crop for the 2010-11 season was estimated at 105.3 million boxes, anticipated to include approximately 8 million boxes of organic apples.

Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, said that figures do not include all apples grown initially under the organic banner. He said that up to 30 percent of product grown organically may eventually be sold as conventional product during any crop year. "If certain sizes are in demand, organic could go as conventional," he said by way of illustration. He went on to say the export market is an excellent example of this phenomenon. “Producers may use organic to fill demand,” he said.

“According to our Dec. 1 monthly apple storage report, based on holdings at that time and organic fruit shipped to date, we show a total indicated organic apple crop of 8,007,000 boxes in Washington,” he added.

Several Washington producers were asked to give their insights about organic production.

Organic volume continues to grow for Rainier Fruit Co. in Yakima, WA. Director of Marketing Suzanne Wolter said that 15 percent of the company’s overall apple volume is organic this season, adding that this represents a 40 percent increase over apple volume from the 2009-10 season.

At the current time, Rainier is moving organic Fuji, Jonagold, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Pink Lady, Cameo, Honeycrisp and Lady Alice varieties to the marketplace.

Ms. Wolter was asked about organic marketplace trends. “Retailers with a committed organic program with support from upper management saw the most growth in organic volume, especially in those chains with a private label program,” she replied. “Season-to-date apple organic retail sales increased 23 percent for the 12-week period ending Oct. 31 [2010].”

She also provided her observations about key factors that motivate consumers’ decisions to purchase organic apples. “According to an organic apple survey conducted by the Perishables Group for us last year, growth is coming from 'light’ organic buyers who are driven by impulse,” she said. “Quality, freshness and price are key decisions made at the point of purchase. Supermarket shoppers are willing to pay more for organic, but remain price- conscious.”

Despite a troublesome domestic economy, consumers are still eyeing organic apples. “We’re regularly asked how the economy is affecting our organic sales,” Ms. Wolter said. “I can tell you that we continue to increase our organic production, and we are not having any trouble finding new outlets and increasing volume with existing partners.”

Alan Taylor, marketing director for Pink Lady America in Yakima, WA, said that acreage in transition to organic continues to increase. “Overall the trend has been up. Apples are coming in following a three-year certification process,” he told The Produce News. During the 2010-11 season, Pink Lady America is expected to market more than 600,000 cases of organic apples, a jump from the 400,000 cases marketed during the 2009-10 season.

Stemilt Growers Inc., based in Wenatchee, WA, has made a big push into the organic arena. Director of Marketing Roger Pepperl said that this season 30 percent of the company’s apple volume will be organic. “Our organic numbers are way up this year,” he told The Produce News in mid-December. “Our customers have re-energized their organic sales.”

He said that one factor influencing increased organic sales at retail has been the prominence of organic displays. Retailers, he noted, have also done a good job with pricing and merchandising.

This past fall, Bob Mast, vice president of marketing for Columbia Marketing International in Wenatchee, WA, characterized the company’s organic program this way. “Our organic program is taking a huge leap this year,” he said. “We are going from one-half million to 1 million boxes this season.” Fuji and Gala are volume leaders for CMI. “These two varieties are half of our organic tonnage,” Mr. Mast told The Produce News.

The “Daisy Girl” label launched by CMI at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit in October, has been well received at retail. Two new bins — one designed for bulk displays and the other for three-pound totes — are now available. The bins are suitable for location within produce departments or at end caps. Totes have been designed to focus on the simple, evocative qualities which appeal to old and new organic shoppers.

“The colors of the bins really jazz up space in the produce department. Organic shoppers can read into this. The theme is, ‘From our backyard to yours,’ “ said CMI Marketing Manager Brett Burdsal.