Growers’ ongoing conversion of acreage from conventional to organic means distributors and retailers can expect sales to continue increasing as supplies expand.

Huge increases from 2006 through 2010, such as 193% growth for organic strawberries, help drive conversion, said Steve Lutz, executive director of Chicago-based Perishables Group.

The strawberry numbers were the extreme example, Lutz said, but other organic commodities had stunning growth in the same period.

Data from The Perishables Group showed organic apple sales jumped 95%, tomatoes increased 62% and packaged salads went up 55%.

Organics account for only 3.4% to 5.4% of all fresh produce sales, according to Lutz. But there is enough room for growth that growers are increasingly converting to and adding organic acreage.

Better distribution has been one key in the trend, Lutz said.

Growers convert mores acres to organicAt Earthbound Farm in San Juan Bautista, Calif., more organic ground is seen as a good thing, even though it means more competition for the all-organic company.

“Of course you have to contemplate your competition,” said Samantha Cabaluna, communications director for Earthbound Farm. “At the same time, we think the more land converted to organic, the better it is for the people eating that food and the planet.”

Momentum growing

The stars are aligning for growth potential for fresh produce in general and organics specifically, said Lorna Christie, executive vice president of the Produce Marketing Association.

For example, Washington has almost 1,000 apple acres in transition to organic, according to the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service. As of Jan. 1, there were 14,818 acres of certified organic apples in the state, representing about 9% of total apple acreage.

There’s no reason to think growth in organic production can’t continue, said Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Recent organic conversion and expansion examples in the fresh produce include:

Deardorff Family Farms

Growers convert mores acres to organicFourth-generation growers known for their commitment to sustainable practices, the owners of Deardorff Family Farms have about 25% of their production acreage in organics, said co-owner Scott Deardorff.

That’s significantly more than the Oxnard, Calif., operation had just two years ago.

Since 2009, Deardorff has added organic strawberries, collards, cabbage, chards and zucchini.

In July, the company added an organic celery grower and tested organic leaf lettuce for potential expansion.

“We are committed to organics,” Deardorff said. “We aren’t just dabbling.”

Deardorff said his family has been practicing “soft farming methods” for years and that one stumbling block to converting to organics has been finding organically certified ground. So they decided to convert their own.

Rainier Fruit Co.

Growers convert mores acres to organicRainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash., will have a 100% organic blueberry crop for the 2012 season.

Blake Belknap, organic sales manager for Rainier, said the company is constantly looking for ways to expand its program.

“We look for things we can do well that are also difficult to do,” Belknap said. “If we can create a niche, we beat the competition.”

Converting all 500 of Rainier’s blueberry acres to organic production is just one example.

Belknap said Rainier also has a good handle on the organic Honeycrisp apple that allows them to offer the premium variety a couple of months longer than competing growers.

In terms of overall organic apple production, Rainier has been in the deal for 12 years and now produces 15% of Washington’s crop from 2,000 acres, Belknap said.

Zirkle Farms, which owns Rainier, has about 12,000 acres in production, Belknap said.

More of those are planned for conversion to organic with each coming year.

Naturipe Farms LLC

Growers convert mores acres to organicThe goal is to be all organic year-round in all four major berry categories, and Naturipe Farms LLC moves closer to it every season, said Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for the Naples, Fla., company.

“If you are going to be a leader in berries, you have to do organics,” Bocock said in late October during a tour of growing operations.

Naturipe entered organic berries with blueberries in 2003. Next were strawberries in 2006, blackberries in 2008 and raspberries in 2010. Bocock said Naturipe’s organic strawberry sales were flat the first two years, but jumped 110% in 2009.

“Of course, when you start with such a small base, there is room for huge growth,” Bocock said. “But we are also seeing supply meet demand — capitalism works.”

In 2011, Naturipe has seen growth across the board for organic berries, Bocock said.

But Bocock said he knows he still isn’t working in a mainstream category.

Berries remain an impulse buy the majority of the time, which means Naturipe has to offer consistent quality all year.

Stemilt Growers LLC

Growers convert mores acres to organicOrganics account for about 25% of Stemilt Growers LLC’s overall acreage, but when it comes to peaches and nectarines, the company has been all organic for four years.

It took seven years for the Wenatchee, Wash., company to completely convert its peach and nectarine programs, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

“It’s been the best thing that ever happened to us with peaches and nectarines,” he said.

“We were looking for a compelling reason for people to come to us in addition to our flavor, and we went with organics.”

Stemilt’s conversion roots stretch back to 1989 with apples, partly in response to the alar situation, in which consumer panic about the chemical’s potentially carcinogenic properties caused apple sales to plummet.

At first, there were concerns about being stuck in a basket at the back of the store.

Now, Pepperl said, almost every Stemilt customer carries a line of organics with increasing varieties in their assortments.