Registering a third straight year of double-digit gains, sales of organic fruits and vegetables rose 11.7% in 2011 to $11.8 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association’s annual survey.

Survey: Organic produce grows by double digits in 2011Since climbing only 6.3% in 2008, sales of organic fruits and vegetables have sailed to gains of 11.4% in 2009, 11.8% in 2010 and 11.7% in 2011, according to the latest annual survey from the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Organic Trade Association.

Fresh organic produce accounted for 40.5% of all organic food sales in 2011, slightly up from 2010. Total organic food sales were pegged at $29.2 billion in 2011, up 9.4% from 2010.

The survey doesn’t address total organic produce sales as a percent of total produce sales. FreshLook Marketing reported that organic produce accounted $1.34 billion at retail in 2010, or 3.8% of retail produce sales. A more recent first-quarter 2011 number from United Fresh Produce Association’s FreshFacts report said organic vegetables accounted for 3.3% and organic fruits tallied 1.5% of total produce sales.

Besides supermarket sales, the OTA survey also includes sales from farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs.

Produced for OTA by Nutrition Business Journal and compiled primarily from an online poll of 300 companies, the survey showed fresh produce accounted for 92.9% of total organic fruit and vegetable sales in 2011. That dwarfs the 3% share for frozen fruits and vegetables, 2.7% for canned fruits and vegetables and 1.5% for dried product.

The OTA said the sales of fresh organic produce totaled $10.98 billion in 2011, up 12.2% from 2010.

The survey’s estimate of organic produce sales growth appears to be slightly more than reported by the West Dundee, Ill.-based Nielsen Perishables Group. Statistics from Nielsen pegged fresh organic produce sales for the 52-week period ending in early February at 10% higher than a year ago, compared to a 3.8% year-over-year sales increase for conventional produce, according to Nielsen.

The OTA’s numbers seem consistent with retail experience, said Dick Spezzano, owner of Spezzano Consulting Service, Monrovia, Calif.

“Every (retailer) I talked to saw double-digit growth last year,” Spezzano said. “Because of the nice increases in the category, (retailers) are starting to promote a lot more,” he said. Retailers are promoting three or four organic items per week instead of one or two items, he said.

The OTA survey said apples were the biggest organic produce seller, with packaged salads driving the vegetable category.

Safeway is one chain store that has reduced retail prices on organic produce and seen substantial sales gain, Spezzano said. Increasingly, conventional growers offer some organic commodities, he said.

“I think the success of the category is to get the crossover shopper to buy organic,” he said. Some observers say consumers will crossover easily if organic produce is not more than 20% more expensive than conventional, he said.

The growth of year-round organic supply of berries and packaged sales has also helped boost results.

“Retailers are riding the wave of category growth,” he said.

Spezzano said organic produce sales may begin to sink below double digits within five years or so but he predicted high single-digit growth for the category after that.