Organics: acting locally

Growers and vendors of organic foods report increasing sales as consumers learn more about the nutritional benefits and superior quality of these items.

by Justin Wiser
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 said.
Factors of this dramatic growth include a widening consumer base, aggressive expansion by retailers and increasing organic farm acreage.

Selling locally

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, sustainable agriculture.
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 distributors.
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 industry.
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.

Farm direct

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 water.

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 it."
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.