Sales of organic avocados remain steady despite the recession, but growers are finding that the category isn’t as lucrative as it once was.

Not long ago, growers received 20 to 30 cents more for a pound of organic avocados than they did for conventional ones, said Steve Taft, president and chief executive officer at Eco-Farms Corp., Temecula, Calif.

This season, prices of some organic fruit are almost on par with conventional product, he said.

“There’s almost no premium on organic,” Taft said.

He attributed the price drop largely to increased production.

Growers lured into the deal a few years ago by premium prices are producing more volume, which creates a price crunch.

Even though sales have increased, organics remains a niche market, Taft said, “so the slightest increase in supply can be turbulent.”

About 10% of the company’s volume is organic.

At Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., partner Bob Lucy paints a slightly different picture.

The company, which has become one of the largest organic avocado shippers, has been successful with its organic program, Lucy said.

He recalls a time when growers received a $10 premium on boxes of large fruit. That premium has dropped to $4-6 this year, but it’s still a nice margin, he said.

Organics are a significant part of the company’s program, and by expanding the category the firm has picked up more retail business, Lucy said.

Consumers welcome the current decrease in organic prices, and the drop might be good for the organic industry long term, said John Stair, domestic commodity manager for San Francisco-based Pacific Organic Produce.

The price reduction might provide the incentive that shoppers who usually buy conventional product need to give organic avocados a try.

“It’s good for the organic industry because we hope to capture more exposures and more consumer dollars,” he said.

Stair estimates the organic premium has dropped from more than 20% in past seasons to closer to 10% this year.

Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., was prepared for a drop in organic sales when the recession hit, but that has not been the case, said Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing.

Calavo has had no trouble selling the organic volume it has taken on, he said. Organic product accounts for 4% of the company’s fresh avocado sales.

The challenge is finding growers willing to risk reduced production from organic groves, he said.

Some growers say organic production drops to an unacceptable level, taking away any incentive to grow organic fruit, Wedin said. Others are totally committed to organics, though, and Wedin hopes they will stick with their organic programs.

“We have customers who want organic avocados,” he said.

Lucy said the belief that organic acreage produces less fruit than conventional is a misperception.

“We don’t necessarily believe that’s the case,” he said. “You can get the tonnage if you put plenty of water on it, you’re generous with the application of fertilizer, and you go at it in a serious manner,” he said.

Eco-Farms has farmed organically since the 1970s, Taft said, and he believes newcomers who got into the deal because of the premium and pushed up volume may well switch back to conventional product now that the premium has dropped.

“(The organic avocado market) will probably straighten itself out over the next few years,” he said.