(Jan. 5) Organic apples may be growing faster than their demand.

This year may present the industry with some challenges because more organic fruit is available than in years past.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Bob Mast, vice president of marketing for Columbia Marketing International Corp., Wenatchee, Wash. “The state of the economy is changing daily and it does have everyone watching their programs closely to do what’s best for the grower and the consumer as much as possible.”

Organic production overall is up about 30%, said Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing for Albert’s Organics, Vernon, Calif. “In a normal year and in a normal economy, this increase would have been very marketable,” he said. “However, with the current recession sales volume is facing some significant challenges.”

Sales are up over last year for many organic farmers, he said, but pricing is being affected by the oversupply, and the pricing gap between organics and conventional apples is narrowing.

Organics continue to grow with apples, said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of The Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill.

“It’s obviously a small base, but it sure looks like there’s room to grow,” Lutz said. “The economy may have some impact on that, but it’s still growing.”

Lots of apples

This is the first season organic Cameo apples have been available, said Kevin Precht, marketing program director of the Cameo Apple Marketing Association, Wenatchee. The association plans on promoting the new apples with another first, an Earth Day promotion around April 22.

“We are in the process of transitioning 20% to organic,” Precht said. “We’ve got 15% certified now.”

The promotion includes point-of-purchase signage that highlights the new apples the entire week around Earth Day.

There should be 180,000 boxes of organic Cameo apples on the market this season.

Rainier Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash., has twice the volume of organic apples this year compared to last. Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing, said the company may be shipping organic apples into June, as compared to a late March, early April finish last season.

Wolter said the big opportunity for retailers with organics, as with conventional apples, is on the small fruit.

“Smaller sizes tend to be more appealing to children and many families look for organic options for young children,” Wolter said.

She said varieties this season that are best suited for small size promotions organically are Pink Lady, braeburn, red delicious, granny smith and gala.

A lot of retailers are electing to carry organic apples and are even going as far as to completely replace one apple variety with an organic option, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash.

Stemilt helps retailers promote organic apples with an organic apple-of-the-month program, Pepperl said, customized for each specific retailer.

“We create that promotion for the retailer,” Pepperl said. “We customize it and pick what works for that chain. More and more of our promotions are customizable now.”

Pepperl said the unique items help retailers fight off competition.

Mast said CMI’s new farm-stand displays can be used for either conventional or organic fruit.

“It was developed primarily for conventional fruit, but we developed a sign that can go on the roof (of the stand) that designated it as organic,” he said. “We have a couple retailers that are using it to differentiate their organic programs.”

Try it and buy it

Weinstein said primary movement of organic apples is in gala, fuji, braeburn, granny smith, red delicious and golden delicious. Albert’s Organics publishes two weekly newsletters, which go out to retail customers that cover tips and strategies for marketing, merchandising and selling organic produce. He said most of the newsletters focus on apples and pears during this storage season.

Sampling is a key strategy, particularly during apple season, he said.

“There are too many varieties for the customer to try and keep up with — knowing which apple is sweet, which is tart, which cooks the best,” Weinstein said. “It just becomes too overwhelming. We have learned that the best way to sell apples is to let shoppers try them.”

Weinstein said sampling also encourages retailers to make sure everyone in the produce department has sampled the various varieties.

“It’s much easier to sell and promote apples when you are excited about their flavor or you have a favorite variety,” he said. “Being able to personalize the product you sell and make recommendations based on your actual experiences and preferences with the product makes for a very valuable selling technique.”