Organic opportunity

05/01/2007 02:00:00 AM

Most growers aren't looking to convert their entire conventional production to organic, because it's just not feasible. The three-plus years it takes to transition from conventional to certified-organic production plus the increased input costs have caused growers to think twice about converting acreage.

But organics are part of an undeniable trend that continues to pick up steam. And organic farming is a perfect opportunity, especially for smaller farms, to draw additional business, says Marty Mesh, executive director of the Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers Association, Gainesville.

Organic food was a $13.8 billion industry in 2005, including $4.9 billion in fresh produce sales, according to the latest numbers from the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association.  Organic fresh produce sales are expected to reach $6.4 billion in 2007, the association says.

With large retail chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., Target Corp., Minneapolis, and Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. beefing up their organic offerings, organic produce is gaining more exposure every day.

Wal-Mart announced in March 2006 plans to increase organic offerings in its 300 top-tier stores, with each store carrying more than 100 organic items during peak periods. But just over a year later, in an April 12 story from Business Week magazine titled "Organics: A Poor Harvest for Wal-Mart," organic growers supplying Wal-Mart's fresh produce said large orders that originally came in following the organic push have been significantly cut back or stopped altogether.

Wade Groetsch, president of Florida juice producer Blue Lake Citrus Products Inc., Winter Haven, told Business Week he stopped shipping his organic orange-tangerine blend juice to Wal-Mart after a few months. Groetsch said the sales weren't enough to justify packing and shipping costs.

The Packer newspaper followed up on the story, contacting Tonya Antle, vice president of organic sales for Natural Selection Foods LLC, San Juan Bautista, Calif., which sells its Earthbound Farm brand in Wal-Mart stores.

"We've had nothing but a success story with Wal-Mart, and they have continued growing the number of items they're carrying and the number of distribution centers that are carrying organics," Antle told The Packer. "They're very supportive of the brands that they work with and are willing to give some valuable real estate to the organic category within their produce departments."

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