by Justin Wiser
Growers and vendors of organic foods report increasing sales as consumers
learn more about the nutritional benefits and superior quality of these
ach year, the organic food market continues to play
a larger role in the economy and ecology of the nation, of California and
of San Diego county.
Though millions of Americans still remain in the dark
regarding organics, the media is finally beginning to shed light on the
positive aspects of responsibly grown, wholesome foods. Both U.S. News and
World Report and Food and Wine ran supportive articles on organics in 1995.
National Geographic ran a 29-page feature in December which said organics
are "shaking the very foundations of agribusiness."
Indeed, recent growth of the industry has been tremendous.
The organic foods market had sales of $2.8 billion in 1995, an increase
of 21.7 percent from 1994. For the sixth year in a row, organic sales have
increased by more than 20 percent.
Organic produce has increased from one tenth of one
percent of the American produce market to five percent of that market during
the past 20 years, according to Scott Murray of Rodriguez Ranch in North
County. "The whole organic market is growing considerably," Murray
Factors of this dramatic growth include a widening consumer
base, aggressive expansion by retailers and increasing organic farm acreage.
Natural products supermarkets report large gains in
recent years. Such stores thrive by offering vitamins, natural medicines
and supplements in addition to organic products with one-stop shopping convenience.
Local stores display the same pattern. San Diego's oldest
health food store, Ocean Beach People's Food Co-op, is celebrating
its twenty-fifth year of providing organic produce to its members. The co-op
has more than 6,400 members and makes 25 percent of its profit from their
organic produce. "We're selling more and more and we have better quality
and variety. We've gone from $19,000 to $22,000 a week in produce sales
over the past year," said Trent Westen, produce manager of People's.
"There are now more distributors and more competition. That helps rather
than hurts - it makes more people aware of organics. Nowadays, because of
the growth of the organic produce industry, we are getting produce of different
varieties, better quality, and with lower prices. We prefer to work with
local farms because it allows us to emphasize produce that is picked fresh
and in season. Those two things go hand-in-hand."
Rita Waters of Jimbo's Naturally! (in Del Mar
and North Park) reports an increase of 35 percent in sales in the first
six months of 1996 over the first six months of 1995. "Sales have been
great because of more public awareness and demand," Waters said. "And
there are more products on the market."
Casady's Markets has been dedicated to educating
the public about the value of organic farming and offer more than 10,000
whole foods items. Their three stores abstain from selling any processed,
artificial or chemically preserved items. Their organic foods must be labeled
"Certified Organic" and they remain committed to supporting organic,
Boney's Marketplace stores began stocking organic
produce at the beginning of 1996 due to consumer demand. The selection of
fresh produce is limited and varies from store to store, but they do carry
a wide selection of packaged organics. Although Boney's is now looking into
buying organic produce from local farmers, their main suppliers are outside
Observers note that the amount of organic produce in
supermarkets will probably pick up during 1997, when a large natural foods
supermarket, Whole Foods, will be locating in San Diego. Two stores
are planned: one across from La Jolla Village Square (formerly Ralph's)
and one in the Hillcrest area. This store chain, a "supermarket format"
natural foods store, has seen the most growth of any sector of the organic
Even conventional supermarkets are slowly incorporating
organic items into their product mix and are learning how to handle and
market fresh organic produce. Organics have grown from a trendy novelty
to a standard product in many stores, earning a permanent place on market
shelves. The 1995 Packer survey reported that 54 percent of all respondents
said their supermarkets sell organic produce.
Small vendors of locally grown organics have met with
success in employing a knowledgeable staff and creating customer loyalty.
Consumers, increasingly interested in the origins of their food, are flocking
to small farmers' markets where farmers sell their own goods. Farmers markets
have mushroomed in San Diego, increasing from 15 in 1994 to 21 in 1995,
scattered throughout the metropolitan area.
The Ocean Beach Farmers Market, which boasts
an average of 38 different farmers each week, is a local, "certified"
farmers market. "You're dealing with the person who actually grew the
product you're buying," said market manager Claire Carpenter. In this
direct market, customers may ask vendors anything regarding their produce.
Another increasingly popular means of organic produce
sales is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Under this scheme,
the consumer has a direct relationship with his or her food source and the
small farmer has a guaranteed market for his goods. Customers buy a "harvest
share" in a farmer's production and regularly receive a basket of fresh
produce. At Little Creek Acres farm in Valley Center, CSA participants
purchase monthly or annual shares and receive a basket of food each week
for anywhere between $14 and $25. The share plan helps the farm to plan
and prepare for the growing season and gives consumers a dependable and
knowledgeable source of food.
The Little Creek Acres farm, managed by Dr. John and
Brenda Roberts, specializes in research and education. John serves on the
public advisory committee of a University of California program which strives
to insure that people become more educated about wholesome foods. The group
also seeks to make such foods affordable to the public and establish ways
that it is grown nearby to assure freshness.
Small business delivers
Barbara Weith, "Eco Chef" and owner of "The
Natural Gourmet" has seen a 70 percent increase in sales to her
customers since 1995. She attributes this tremendous growth to an increase
in consumer awareness, plus the superior quality and taste of organic food.
Barbara created "The Menu of the Month Club" which was founded
to provide environmentally responsible low-fat frozen vegetarian cuisine
to an enlightened clientele interested in a more natural, responsible, and
wholistic lifestyle. Barbara, a vegetarian "food stylist," specializes
in gourmet vegetarian catering and in providing educational information
whenever and whereever possible to help promote a more conscious and responsible
way of eating.
Christina of Christina's Gourmet Breads in Encinitas
has been happily and intentionally baking an incredible range of fresh baked
breads and bread-products since 1992. "We've had organics from the
beginning and try and buy organic when we can. When we can't get certified
organic, we buy wheat that has been tested to be pesticide-free. Our white
flour is certified organic and we use organic herbs, especially basil and
rosemary. Our french bread is organic with no yeast and natural leavening.
We make Country French, Babette's, sun-dried tomato and basil-Parmesan."
Other tempting creations include Organic Sourdough and Olive, Potato Herb,
Honey Nutty Oat and Fresh Feta Cheese and Herb. "We also have cookies,
cinnamon rolls and fresh-fruit Danish sweetened naturally with maple syrup
and honey," she adds.
Origami Japanese restaurant increases the benefits
of an already healthy cuisine through the use of organic vegetables and
fruits. They also offer hormone-free chicken, many oil-free dishes and distilled
Grow this niche!
Though many sources for organics do exist, the products
remain a niche industry - vendors reach only a fraction of all shoppers.
A lack of information on organics hampers the market's growth. Many consumers
and many segments of the food industry simply do not know all the facts
about organics, and until they do the market will not meet its potential.
Mainstream food producers do not supply America with
wholesome foods, a fact which most individuals blindly accept, asserts Evelyn
Nichols of The Vegetarian restaurant in Escondido. "We're consuming
empty food," she said. "It's really wicked what's going on. People
are trying to be organic, but it's hard work."
Dave Thomas, sales manager of Corganics, an organic
produce distributor in Statesville, North Carolina, reports that consumers
are more frequently requesting organic products. Grocers, however, are often
unfamiliar with the products and can't explain why they differ from other
produce and why they're more expensive.
Price, is another major factor in the organic industry's expansion. Grown
in small amounts and sold only at a handful of stores, organic vendors cannot
yet reap the economies of scale enjoyed by mass producers, nor compete with
other subsidies provided to many petro- and agri-businesses.
"To grow food honestly in harmony with the earth
is a more expensive proposition," said Westen of Ocean Beach People's.
"But," he added, "you are getting a more wholesome product."
Executive Chef Doug Organ of Laurel restaurant
in San Diego agrees that organics are excellent products that warrant their
costs. "I use them as much as I can, though they are more costly,"
he said. "In the end, the quality is generally higher, so it's worth
As more and more consumers come to realize the nutritional
value and the superior taste of organics, they will also understand the
value of the products they purchase. Fueling this trend, education of the
public has become a major aim for many involved in the organics movement.
The success of this and other programs will play an
integral role in the future proliferation of organic foods. With education
and with the advent of the information age, public understanding of organics
will only grow. In turn, more Americans will demand these products from
the marketplace and the industry will also grow. One day organics will at
last command a larger fraction of the U.S. foods market.