Organic produce sales grew by 11.7% from 2010-11, marketing agents within the category said.

“The U.S. organic sector is continuing to show steady and healthy growth,” said Christine Bushway, executive director and chief executive officer of the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Organic Trade Association.

In April, the OTA released its annual U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes & Beliefs Tracking Study, which showed organics sales increased by 9.5% in 2011.

The study showed organics represented 4.2% of all U.S. food sales, up from 4% in 2010.

Organic sales totaled more than $31.4 billion, including $29.22 billion in the food and beverage category. Fruits and vegetables accounted for a little more than half of the $2.5 billion year-on-year jump the category made in 2011, according to the OTA.

“Consumers are increasingly engaged and discerning when they shop, making decisions based on their values and awareness about health and environmental concerns,” Bushway said.

The price premium organic items carry remains an issue, but consumers have more spending maneuverability within the category, Bushway said.

“With the wide availability of private-label products and many venues for organic products, they have many choices for where to shop and a variety of products from which to choose,” she said.

Pricing

But a price premium of 10-25 cents a pound hasn’t slowed growth, said Bill Sheridan, executive vice president of sales for Banacol Marketing Corp., Miami, which offers organic tropical fruit as part of its product roster.

“Even though that’s something you would think would be affected by the economy, it is a lifestyle, and even though it has a higher cost, people continue to choose that lifestyle,” Sheridan said.

A key to helping the category move upward is to work with customers in developing an organics program, said Ron Carkoski, president and chief executive officer of Ephrata, Pa.-based Four Seasons Produce Inc.

“I don’t expect that to slow down,” he said.

Consumer statistics

According to OTA’s report, most organic buyers are middle-income, college-educated, white families.

Among experienced organic buyers — who have been purchasing organics as long as five years — 11% were Hispanic.

Organic buyers who are new to the segment were significantly more likely than other buyer segments to be under age 25 — 20% in 2011.

Those buyers were less educated and reported lower household income compared to other organic buyer groups.

Overall, organic buyers were significantly more likely to include wealthier, more highly educated and more racially diverse families compared to non-buyers, the OTA said.

The category is starting to reach other demographics, though, said Addie Pobst, import coordinator for Sedro-Woolley, Wash.-based organics shipper CF Fresh Inc.

“We have crossed that boundary now, where every supermarket always has at least some organic offerings,” she said.

Other industry participants have noted the growth.

Rachel Pagano, organic category manager with Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group, said organic produce sales increased 173% from 2006-10.

“Demand from our retail customers indicates that consumers are continuing to pursue organics more and more as part of their lifestyle,” Pagano said.

A combination of health-consciousness and environmental sensitivity is a major driver, Pagano said.

“Our food culture is changing, and consumers are redefining quality and demanding products that are fresh, organic, local and sustainable,” she said.

Oppenheimer offers organic kiwifruit, mangoes, apples, pears, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, Pagano said.

“We’re actively building toward greater volumes and a larger assortment for the future,” she said.

Other growers said they also had expanded their organic roster to keep up with growing demand.

“The demand is more than (adequate) to support additional supplies,” said Tom Deardorff, president of Oxnard, Calif.-based Deardorff Family Farms.

“In fact, we end up short of supplies a lot of times.”