Few retailers dedicate major portions of their produce departments to organic, but given the category’s steady increase in sales during the past decade, it might be time to give it more room.


“We certainly want a bigger display of organics,” said Raymond Wong, president of  Origin Organic Farms, Delta, British Columbia. “If they (retailers) have a bigger display … there’s more movement.”


Last year, more than 11% of all fresh produce sales were organic fruits and vegetables, according to the 2010 Organic Industry Survey released in April by the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association. That represents sales of nearly $9.5 billion in organic produce.


The findings likely came as no surprise to those who handle large volumes of organic produce.


As the U.S. economy slowed, consumers purchased less value-added produce and bought lower cost produce items, said Ron Carkoski, president and chief executive officer of Four Seasons Produce Inc., Ephrata, Pa. But organic consumers remained dedicated and continued helping the segment grow, he said.


“It had its own economic track,” Carkoski said.


Four Seasons markets up to 400 organic SKUs, which is about 30% of its total SKUs. In 2009, about 33% of its sales were organics, an increase of nearly 10% over 2008.


“The trend that we’re seeing is that no matter what happens with the economy, people still want their organic produce,” said David Posner, president and chief executive officer of Awe Sum Organics Inc., Capitola, Calif.


Greg Holzman, chief executive officer of Pacific Organic Produce, San Francisco, said company’s volumes were down in the past year, but it was because it lost a major vendor, not because of any lack of support from the organic community. Consumption of organic avocados, citrus and apples, in particular, increased, he said.


“People who are dedicated to organic are very, very dedicated people,” Carkoski said. “It’s a passion for the style of life and a passion for living healthy.”


Posner said organic consumers want the best quality and taste, and they want healthful foods that are produced with practices that are healthiest for the Earth.


To encourage consumers to buy organic produce, Posner said retailers should keep margins the same as on conventional produce, and he recommended integrating organic with conventional produce.


“Put it side by side and it’ll move fast enough to keep it fresh,” Posner said. “People can look at it and compare.”


Organic produce must be fresh and well displayed. Wong said produce managers should pay extra attention to organic displays. If product stays out past its shelf life, it damages the reputation of organics, he said.


Wong also said that integrating organics with conventional is a good technique, but he said that some retailers worry that the products could get mixed up. In that case, retailers prefer designated organic areas.


“To me it doesn’t matter as long as it’s clear (which is organic) and it’s easy to access,” he said.


Holzman, who also serves as chief executive officer of juice company Purity.Organic, San Francisco, said Purity-brand juice is shelf stable and designed to be displayed in the produce section. When stacked in front of an organic display, the brightly colored juice bottles help attract shoppers.


“We’re trying to use juice as a banner to announce to consumers that there’s a big and healthy organic section here,” he said. “The idea is to make it louder, brighter, more real to the consumer.”


Homegrown Organic Farms, Porterville, Calif., offers new half and quarter bins to add display space and draw customers to organic areas, said Scott Mabs, marketing director.


The portable bins are printed with graphics, including the company logo and educational information. The company also offers point-of-sals materials for added interest.


Homegrown will work with retailers to customize POS materials. Many of its POS materials are available online at www.hgofarms.com.


Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics provides buyers with merchandising strategies and product and industry information through a twice-weekly digital newsletter, said Simcha Weinstein, marketing director.


In November, Weinstein and other Albert’s staff began blogging to share additional information.


Research and technology play a big part in the fresh produce industry. Because organic growers have more limitations on their production and handling methods, they often are especially interested in finding more effective ways to manage pests while increasing volume and quality.


Raymond Wong, president of Origin Organic Farms, Delta, British Columbia, who has a bachelor’s degree in bio-resource engineering and a master’s in agricultural engineering, grows organic tomatoes on-the-vine, cucumbers and beefsteak tomatoes. The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, markets the produce, which carries the OriginO label.


Wong, who started in the business in 1996, has researched fertilizing, growing and soil techniques for years. He describes Origin’s greenhouses as high-tech. Although they look like regular greenhouses from the outside, he said, the climate, irrigation and soil are different.


With organic production, using high-quality soil is critical because there is no perfect organic fertilizer, Wong said. Instead, the soil mixture must provide necessary nutrients, so Origin devotes greater effort to premixing soil. It composts prunings from the crop and uses them as a major soil component.


The company recently increased the volume of soil it uses because, even with scientific advances and techniques such as fertigation, soil is still a basic need for organic growing.


Wong said the amount of work involved in Origin’s sustainable growing practices is tremendous, but says it produces “picture-perfect” organic tomatoes and cucumbers.


To increase yields per acre, Wong uses intercropping to achieve continuous production throughout the season. Origin planted 23 acres this season — about 16 acres are tomatoes-on-the-vine, about 5 acres are cucumbers, and the remaining 2 acres are beefsteak tomatoes.


While conventional growers can use chemicals to control pests, Origin uses biological pest control. From the start, Wong puts protective and harmful insects into the greenhouses to create a balance. The pest insects are food for the protective ones.


“If we don’t introduce the bad bugs, the good bugs will have nothing to eat,” Wong said.


The balance of insects must be monitored and maintained.


“If things are out of hand, it’s like Disneyland for the bad bugs,” he said. “And then we can only pick them out physically, one by one.”


Origin also uses guardian plants, or hotels for good bugs, as Wong referred to them. Origin also grows marigolds in the greenhouses to control nematodes.


Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms, Charlotte, Mich., is in the middle of a three-season research project to determine the effectiveness of attracting bats to apple orchards as a means of pest management.


Along with six other growers and scientists from Eastern Michigan University and Michigan State University. Four of the growers, including Tennes, grow organically, he said.


The hope is that bats can be used to control moths, particularly the codling moth, which Tennes said is the most destructive pest for apple and pear growers in the U.S. If effective, the method would have wider application for other types of insects and crops.


Bats are already present in the area, but researchers placed 28 bat houses in the orchards to encourage more activity. Researchers record bat calls and use a computer program to identify the kinds of bats present. Different bat species eat different insects, Tennes said.


In addition to bat activity, researchers will analyze codling moth activity and fruit damage in relationship to the bat houses.


Ultimately, the project should result in recommendations for bat house placement in relationship to water sources and fruit trees, as well as information on the effects that different species have on codling moths, Tennes said.


“There’s real hope for organic, but also sustainable, growing,” Tennes said.


Last fall, the project received a grant of nearly $36,000 from the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Santa Cruz, Calif.


The foundation also granted almost $28,000 for a project investigating cost-effective nutrient and weed management practices for organic pear orchards.


Chuck Ingels, farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Sacramento, and his group are experimenting with five replications of seven combinations of treatments, including in-row mowing, chicken manure fertilizer, feather meal fertilizer, landscape fabric, mulch and organic herbicide.


The project began in the fall of 2008 at Joe Green Ranch, Courtland, Calif.


Weeds in tree rows can cause lower yields and smaller fruit. The challenge for organic pear growers is to control weeds that grow in tree rows without using pre-emergent herbicides.


Organic herbicide provides only about 50% control, depending on the type of weeds and timing of spreading, Ingels said. Typically, even with mowing, quite a few weeds grow.


Outcomes measured are tree growth, fruit size, water potential of leaves, yields and leaf nutrient content.


It’s too early to draw conclusions, but Ingels said woodchip mulch reduces stress on trees, so it might help increase fruit size. Unfortunately, woodchips are expensive to buy and apply. Ingels hopes to have conclusive results in about three years.