Organic opportunity

05/01/2007 02:00:00 AM

She added that the exposure and access to organic produce that Wal-Mart has given its customers has been invaluable.

That being said, organics have gained consumer interest and growers are looking at the category as an option to diversify their offerings.

"Organics are one of the best growing areas in produce," says Bob Spence, vice president of business development for Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto. "Retailers prefer to deal with fewer suppliers and logistically, they're looking to fill fewer trucks. Organics are another leg to the stool to offer retailers."

Crunch the numbers

Compared with the rest of the country, Florida still isn't a major organic produce growing state.

Mesh says current certified organic products in Florida include citrus and citrus juices, mixed vegetables, tomatoes, watermelons, blueberries and grapes. Mesh estimates that his organization has certified 7,500 organic acres of citrus and vegetables in Florida. He estimates current Florida acreage of certified organic citrus and vegetables at 12,000 acres to 15,000 acres. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service,  Florida boasted 3,169 acres of certified organic citrus, 1,813 acres of organic mixed vegetables, 168 acres of organic tomatoes and 124 acres of organic lettuce in 2005.

California dwarfs those numbers in comparison, with 56,667 total acres of organic fruits and 58,327 acres of organic vegetables in 2005, according to the service.

"Florida has lots of room for organic acreage growth," says Barbara Haumann, press secretary for the Organic Trade Association. "Florida consumers also are interested in organic produce."

This is reinforced by a phone survey of 634 Florida households conducted by the Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers Association, which found that about 45 percent of those surveyed said they occasionally purchase organic products. More than 70 per-cent said they believed that organic agriculture, if practiced on a wider scale in Florida, would help protect the state's environment.

As more consumer-preference research and studies are published, the hard evidence builds that organics have staying power.

Why dabble in organics?

There is a big hole to fill between the current organic supply and demand.

"Growers need to recognize that packaged salads and baby peeled carrots make up nearly 40 percent of organic produce in conventional grocery stores," says Steve Lutz, executive vice president for West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group Inc. "The rest of the products are battling for their 60 percent of the segment. This is a long-term trend?not a fad?that will play out over many years as consumer demand increases."

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