October 2, 2009 / Posted by: FirstMonday
Despite the global economic downturn, the popularity of organic foods has more than maintained its roots. The challenge now is keeping up with sprouting demand.
Hop off the Washington, D.C., Metro at the Smithsonian stop and head toward the corner of 12th Street and Jefferson Drive. There, on the National Mall you’ll find the “People’s Garden.” Jam-packed with hordes of organic romaine lettuce, vibrant arugula and jalapenos (plus a handful of bats serving as natural pest eliminators), it’s a six-acre beacon of the sustainable agriculture movement.
With 24 million people romping through the famous grounds each year, “The garden, to me, is very symbolic,” says Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers, a nonprofit organization that certifies organic growers worldwide.
It’s a sign of palpable energy surrounding the organic industry.
Want local proof? Walk the aisles of Publix or even Wal-Mart. Shelf after shelf is stocked with fair-trade chocolate, organic wine and antibiotic-free chicken. Even Whole Foods, a relatively expensive food retailer, has seen a jump in profit margins while other supermarket chains are struggling.
During a down economy, you’d think pricey organic goods would be the first items nixed from the shopping list. And, yes, the industry has seen a decline worldwide since the recession hit. Yet, consider this: Studies show that three in 10 U.S. families are buying more organic foods than they did a year ago, with many parents reducing spending in other areas before giving organics the boot.
The market interest is there. Still, across the Sunshine State, only a mere 14,000 acres are devoted to organic growing.
“It’s been a sliver that’s grown without any real support, only on the backs [literally] of the farmers,” says Mesh, a back-to-basics guy with course, curly hair not unlike that of Grizzly Adams. “We’re out to change that.”
A longtime sustainable-food activist and organic farmer based in Gainesville, Mesh is downright giddy when he chats about the industry’s potential. “The majority of organic farmers are able to make a profit,” he says. “I believe there are lots of opportunities for growers.
So why aren’t more farmers flocking back to organic roots, especially since it’s now a multibillion-dollar industry?
The reasons are many, not the least of which is time. Converting to organic, by law, takes three years to rid the soil of fertilizers and pesticides. Only then can produce be grown that can be certified as organic. Talk about time consuming. To make matters worse, Florida’s fickle landscape can make it difficult to grow organically, and production costs can be twice per acre that of conventional farming.
Whatever the reason, the reality is that most conventional growers are more worried about canker and about ways to control these diseases with conventional pesticides. They are not thinking about a new niche market.
Here’s where Mesh gets on his soapbox: “Yes, it’s difficult; farming is a tough business to be in. But you can grow citrus organically, you can grow sugar organically and you can grow mangoes and papayas [organically],” he says matter of factly.
Part of the problem, he says, is that “For decades we’ve gone away from trying to create healthier soils. Some of that has been due to a mentality of creating products that can stand on store shelves for weeks. And even though it tastes like cardboard or Styrofoam, that’s OK. That has been the mind-set.”
Crops of Confidence
Despite the challenges, organic growers are still finding success. Keith Mixon, CEO of SunnyRidge Farm in Winter Haven, for one, is transitioning 300 of his 1,200 acres to begin growing organic blueberries this spring. The decision was easy, he says: “It allows us to offer more choices to consumers to let them select products they feel most comfortable with.”
One-upping him is Matt McLean in Clermont. Since 1999, McLean has converted 1,000 acres of oranges to organic. As a result, he has seen his family-owned citrus grove, Uncle Matt’s Farm, grow by 15 to 20 percent each year for the past five years. Better yet, his premium-quality orange juice — which retails for $4.99 to $5.99, about $1 to $2 more than conventional brands — is now sold by the truckload to Whole Foods, Publix, Kroger and several small natural-food stores. Consequently, Uncle Matt’s Organic Inc. is the largest, and one of the fastest-growing, organic juice and fresh fruit brands in the nation.
Plus, his returns are better than those of conventional groves. And McLean has partnered with 15 nearby farms to help them transition to organic.
It’s pretty impressive growth, but apparently not quite good enough. Although the organic production of his groves are growing by leaps and bounds, he still has to turn down orders that he can’t fill for the more popular varieties like red grapefruit, honey tangerines and honeybells.
Simply, supply isn’t able to keep pace with demand.
Beyond the Farm
Other farmers across the state are taking alternative routes to snagging the consumer food dollar. Some are selling to farmers’ markets or community-supported agriculture programs. Others are finding that local eateries are the way to go.
“We see a lot of chefs who want to buy organic products,” Mesh says. “If you are going to charge $5 for a salad, it should be a good salad. Chefs see that [organic] farmers are producing high-quality, good-tasting food. They say, ‘That’s who I want to buy from.’”
One such farmer is Tia Meer with Simple Living Institute Inc. in Orlando. She sells her backyard collards, bok choy and blueberries to Ethos Vegan Kitchen in Orlando. Also, Heart of Christmas Farms in Christmas sells its hydroponically grown xx to local restaurants.
And restaurants and hotels are not the only ripe markets for organic produce. Higher-education institutions across the nation are on board, too. Take the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus in Monterey, for example. It’s known for more than its stunning scenery and innovative teaching methods. The coastal campus operates a 25-acre on-campus organic farm and a world-famous organic garden.
Until a year ago, students eating in the campus dining halls seldom had a choice of organically grown food. Today, the school’s eateries offer more than chicken nuggets and pizza; they serve up certified organic produce every day of the week. In fact, about a quarter of the produce served on campus is now third-party-certified organic, and nearly half of this produce is from local farmers.
UC Santa Cruz is not alone, either. More than xx universities from Wisconsin to Vermont are taking the “Farm-to-College” approach.
Although sale of organic food still accounts for a small percentage of all food sales, its growth is outpacing that of conventional foods. While there was a 15.8 percent increase in organic food sales in 2008, total U.S. food sales increased by only 4.9 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association.
And supermarkets are responding. They’ve evolved to the point where “supermarkets are now the main purveyor of organic products, and that’s good because most people are shopping at a large supermarket,” says Mesh. “This translates to more and more organic production all over the world.”
That’s part of the reason Whole Foods is surviving the recession. The store saw its stock triple this year, and in August, the chain announced a 3.1 percent increase in quarterly profits, making it the top-performing retailer of 2009, according to BusinessWeek magazine.
Likewise, Publix is seeing an upside, too. “Our customers have responded well to our private label brand of health, natural and organic products, especially in tough economic times,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for the supermarket chain. “We have seen double-digit increases in most categories.”
The reason? Brous says customers are more savvy and lifestyle conscious these days. As a result, Brous explains, the “health, natural and organic products have become more mainstream as folks look for a healthy, more balanced lifestyle. Having said that, we find that our customers are looking for more balance, but also enjoying the everyday indulgences life has to offer. Not many people are willing to give up decadent desserts.”
The selection has certainly grown. In fact, since September 2007, Publix has opened GreenWise stores in Palm Beach Gardens, Boca Raton and Tampa.
Back to supply versus demand. Mesh says he believes many supermarkets are open to relationships with Florida farmers. “Lacking that, of course, the demand side will seek out the supply whether it’s in California or overseas,” he comments.
In many cases, he adds, “We [consumers] have forced manufacturers to go on global hunts for raw ingredients because they haven’t been able to find them here.”
The secret to further boosting organics, says Mesh, is spreading the word. In May, the USDA announced $50 million in funding to help encourage more U.S. farmers to go organic. It’s just a drop in the bucket, however. And so, Mesh rolls up his sleeves and educates growers through offering organic transitions workshops and teaching sustainable ways through GIFT Gardens, a program that provides free raised-bed vegetable gardens at schools, businesses and homes of low-income residents.
More Than a Trend
Although organic foods account for only about 3.5 percent of the overall food market, they have huge growth potential. And while the ideas of sustainable agriculture are nothing new, and we’ve heard the going green term for the umpteenth time, what is different is the commercial clout, not to mention the celebrity attention, it’s attracted.
Mesh recently hosted a fund-raiser for sustainable agriculture in New York, and Christy Brinkley was the spokesperson. Just add her to a lengthy list of glitterati, like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow, who now champion the cause.
Every little bit helps, according Mesh, who remains optimistic but stridently urgent about his mission. “We’ll advocate for more [federal] money for sustainable agriculture and organic research,” he says. “Even if organic is only 4 or 5 percent of the market, there is certainly not 4 or 5 percent going toward research. If you look at organic and the promise that it holds for the environment, there should be maybe 6 or 7 percent [for research].”
In the end, he concludes, his hope is that “we change agricultural research priorities radically and the direction [of agriculture] so we can make a substantial difference. We’re trying to change the whole landscape.”
That’s something to chew on.