Organic produce suppliers note business is booming, as usual, on the East and West coasts, but they also say the category is making progress in other regions of the U.S. where sales traditionally have been more sluggish.
“I believe the Southeast is making some headway,” said Ron Carkoski, president of Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, Pa. “I don’t deal directly with customers in the Midwest, but I know there are some good companies out there and there has to be some pull or they couldn’t stay there.”
Indeed, the Southeast is no longer considered a weak market for organics, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers.
“Composite-wise, I’d say the people who make the world go round in the Southeast are selling organics for a couple of reasons,” he said. “One is there are a lot of great retailers down there who have gotten more focused.
“I think also it’s become more cosmopolitan down in the Southeast. A lot of new businesses and industries have settled there. The population has shifted and I think there’s more diverse needs. So, that has come around. It’s a really good market for us.”
Pepperl said the Midwest still presents “some challenges” for organic produce suppliers.
“Some of those are that there is a large local deal there,” he said. “Local has some halo that fills that lifestyle.”
There also are economic factors, Pepperl said.
“The Midwest has been hit very, very hard by the economy and retailers are picking lower-priced items for their promotions,” he said.
What can organic produce marketers do to achieve sales gains in regions that have a tradition of comparatively weak organic sales?
“We can encourage and work with our retail partners helping them develop a successful organic program,” said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director for Rainier Fruit Co., Selah, Wash.
She cautioned, however, that success “hinges strongly on how committed management is to building an organic department. Organic growth needs to be embraced from the top down in order to get true execution at all levels and store-level execution.”
Value perception also is central to success, said Craig Hope, chief customer officer with San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm.
“We’ll win people over with high-quality, relevant products with price points that reflect the added value of being organic, but that doesn’t represent too steep a barrier to entry,” he said.
Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Organic Trade Association, said young, college-age consumers also can help retailers find traction in the category.
“The retailers can try to link up if there are any college towns in that area,” she said. “That should work well, because there are campuses throughout the country. Some of the students go from an area that has plenty of organics to a region that doesn’t have as much access to the category. Marketers should be reaching out to the colleges or the grocery stores in the area and say they want this.”
A lack of exposure to organic produce is a major handicap to marketers looking to expand into traditionally organic-lean regions, said David Lively, marketing director at Eugene, Ore.-based Organically Grown Co.
“Part of the deal is what do people eat generally,” he said. “Here in Oregon, people eat produce. Other areas, they eat very little produce and what they do eat is only a handful of items. If you’re in one of those markets, you’ve got a challenge in terms of how to go about building business. You’re literally trying to change people’s eating habits.”
That challenge aside, marketers need to keep spreading the word about the category, said Maureen Royal, sales and marketing representative for Portland, Ore.-based Bridges Produce Inc.
“Continue to expand with information about organic into those regions, try to promote with retailers in the weaker regions, run side-by-side programs with conventional and organic where possible, and prices can be reasonably close.”