(April 13, 1:20 p.m.)The price premium on organic berries remains, and the product continues to sell, even in a down economy, according to marketing agents.

“Our grower has been increasing his crop every year,” said Bob Von Rohr, marketing and customer relations manager for Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J.

Sales a year ago — before the stock market’s dramatic downward tilt — were “very good” for Sunny Valley, Von Rohr said.

He added that he expected the trend to continue this season, as it has during the import deal.

“More people buying are pints rather than half-pints,” he said. “I know this year our grower planted some more dukes (variety) and has grown about 20%.”

Not that organics haven’t felt the effects of the recession. Keith Mixon, president of Sunnyridge Farm Inc., Winter Haven, Fla., says the category has had “mixed results” lately.

“There is a lot of interest in doing some,” he said. “I don’t think as an overall category it’s hurting. I know it’s been hit more than the conventional category.”

In some sectors, the category continues to expand.

Frank Bragg, chief executive officer of MBG Marketing in Grand Junction, Mich., said Chile has committed itself, more or less, to organic production.

“Organic, especially out of Chile, has grown significantly,” he said. “Last year, we were at a point where about 50% of the crop out of Chile was organic. So, that has come on really strong.”

Production also is growing domestically in the Pacific Northwest and California, which should come as no surprise, Bragg noted.

That growth isn’t without its problems, he said, particularly in the Golden State.

“I think California will struggle with the premiums that are likely to be out there,” he said. “And I’m not sure with the yield loss difference between conventional and organic that that’s sustainable with the organic premium that we’re seeing today.”

Art Galletta, sales manager for Hammonton, N.J.-based Atlantic Blueberry Co. Inc., said he has seen the organics category flourish in his state.

“We have some organic already certified, and we have more acreage in the pipeline,” he said. “In another year, I’ll have a few more fields coming online, and we’ll take it from there.”

In Oregon, organic production is on the upswing, said Cat McKenzie, spokeswoman for the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission, Corvallis.

“It’s growing, because sustainability and organics are working so well together,” she said. “Anything, when you’re talking about sustainable, you’re talking about good agricultural practices, clean water, traceability, packaging and organics.”

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce is launching a full-scale organic strawberry program this year, said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing.

“We’re jumping in based on feedback we’ve gotten from our customers,” Munger said. “We’ll have a substantial volume to support our retailers. It will be marketed in a limited edition brand, with its organic sticker.”

The market for organics isn’t overwhelming, but it’s becoming too compelling to ignore, Munger said.

“Organics obviously appeal to a niche, but it’s been a fairly aggressively growing category for a long time,” he said. “It’s slowing, I think, but it’s still growing.”

More customers are asking for an organic line, Munger said.

“We deal with the positive, and our feeling is that when we hear a retail-type customer say he needs some organic berries because they have consumer demand for some, that’s really what our motivator is,” Munger said.

And, he said, the calls aren’t coming only from the organic specialty retailers.

“A lot of our organic berries aren’t solely destined for solely organic stores,” he said. “A majority of them are basically going to conventional stores, where we’re already supplying customers with conventional berries and they want to be part of our organic program, as well.”

Andrew & Williamson is wary of the economy, but the company isn’t too worried about its effects on organic sales, Munger said.

“I think if we end up in a prolonged economic downturn, I think organics will still be in demand. I think they won’t have the sort of growth we’ve had for the last 15 years,” he said. “The demand for organics is not going away. That trend toward sustainability, the local supply isn’t going away. I think organics is wrapped into that whole trend.”

Some companies would like to expand their organic offerings but can’t, at least for the moment.

“I think the issue is finding ground,” said Cindy Jewell, marketing director for Watsonville-based California Giant Inc. “It’s a longer-term commitment, and you’re planting much farther out than you do with strawberries.”

The commitment to organics is, indeed, difficult at first, but patience can pay off, said Philip Neary, general manager of the Glassboro, N.J.-based Jersey Fruit Cooperative Association.

“One of the growers here decided to go organic about eight years ago, and now, it’s 100% organic,” he said. “A lot of planning, but they’re very healthy. It’s a nice program for us.”