On request from its customers, Riverbend Fresh LLC, in Kerman, CA, switched to organic tomato production three years ago. Dennis Peterson, owner of the company, said it was previously handling conventional heirloom tomatoes.
“Our customers said they could sell more organic,” said Mr. Peterson. “Today our strongest selling organic products, which we will have this year, are cherry heirloom, grape and Roma tomatoes.”
Riverbend Fresh is a grower, packer, shipper and broker. Its customers are large and small specialty and high-end chain retailers. It also services some high-end foodservice operations. The company ships nationwide under the “Riverbend Fresh” label.
“Heirlooms are seasonal,” he said. “I’m the first supplier in [California’s] San Joaquin Valley each season with volume and quality in the heirloom category.
“It seems that people are still buying high-end produce items despite the economy,” he continued. “I’m surprised, and worried, about when that could change. I [hope] demand is still good this summer. I believe the [reported] uptick in the economy is bogus. People are still struggling.”
Riverbend Fresh, Mr. Peterson said, has grown a little each season to meet the growing demand for organics.
Mr. Peterson said that this year it is supplying a major chain restaurant with heirloom tomatoes.
“We have been working hard prior to harvest to set up promotions to keep the category growing,” he said. “One major chain has added a specialty heirloom pizza to its menu this season that we’ll be supplying. We’ve increased our acreage to keep up with this type of growth.”
He added that he is prepared to expand the company’s operation if clear opportunities are presented.
“Given the current conditions, I feel I have maximized the window that I grow in,” he said. “The organic category is still growing, but I have maximized my acreage. Future sales opportunities would enable us to grow.”
Mr. Peterson said that the locally grown movement is a great trend, adding that the company’s organic customers are very open to taking local product.
“Locally grown produce make sense,” he said. “It takes less fuel to deliver, it supports local jobs and it gives back to communities. I think it’s here to stay for the specialty produce category. Commodity type produce can be more easily sourced from other countries. Locally grown can provide bigger opportunities for both organic and conventional produce.”
Riverbend Fresh also brokers conventional grapes, melons and peppers from Central California year round.