Ongoing inflation, however, continues to impact organic fresh produce.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Put simply, organic production means growing a crop without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. To display the “USDA Organic” label, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires specific crop, handling and labeling standards.
According to the Organic Produce Network (OPN), organic produce makes up about 12% of fresh produce sales. In its 2023 Q1 Organic Produce report, OPN notes that ongoing inflation continued to impact organic fresh produce. In that first quarter, dollar sales grew slightly less than 1%, with a 3.4% volume decline.
Notably, the volume of organic citrus grew 2.7% in the first quarter of 2023. This tracking by Nielsen, reveals that, of the 20 categories of organic fresh produce, 15 indicated volume declines. Eleven categories, including citrus with -3.1 sales measure, experienced sales declines.
For organic citrus, however, the West region’s volume increased 1.3%. The Northeast region had the highest citrus volume loss, followed by the South, then the Midwest.
REACHING FOR ORGANIC
Various factors have propelled the organic movement for several decades, such as environmental aspects, sustainability concerns, and market objectives.
With over 30,000 citrus acres in central and southern California, Porterville Citrus Inc., Terra Bella, CA., has provided citrus for 25 years — 12 years organically.
“We started selling organically to meet market demand, and we understand who to market to,” says PCI sales representative Charles Devers. “Millennials are a large market. They are health-conscious, regardless of price.”
“People will pay more for organic,” he adds. “They want to know what they are eating. They are interested in farm to fork.”
“With organic, people embrace how produce is grown,” agrees Robert Schueller, director of public relations, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Vernon, CA. Although conventional produce is typically cheaper, “even with inflation, people are not cutting back on organic.”
“Even with inflation, people are not cutting back on organic.”— Robert Schueller, Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Vernon, CA
Schueller reported in early June Melissa’s has seen a growth of 10–11% within the citrus category compared to the previous year. For example, packaged bulk, 38 units, organic Valencia oranges are up 7%; 5-pound bulk, organic grapefruit, up 5%; 1-pound bulk, organic lemons, 12%; and 1-pound bulk, organic limes, 7%.
Bianca Kaprielian, co-owner of Fruit World Company Inc., a Reedley, CA-based grower-shipper, observes parents, in particular, “are keen on organic, and they watch what children eat.”
Craig Morris, citrus and grapes category director for Homegrown Organic Farms, Porterville, CA, reports citrus is more difficult to grow organically than many other crops, and yield is sometimes up to 40% less.
Still, Homegrown Organic Farms’ 80 growers have mastered production — their combined 7,000 acres also grow three types of blueberries, eight stone fruits, plus Asian pears, pomegranates and persimmons. “We create a convenient one-stop shop,” Morris says, adding their retail and wholesale programs are employee-owned.
CAPTURE NUTRITION SALES
Savvy merchandisers can capitalize on the advantages of citrus fruits’ nutrition. While orange juice has enjoyed favorable publicity historically, the quest for the nutritional benefits of Vitamin C heightened sales of oranges during the pandemic.
PCI’s Devers recalls pandemic sales. “There was strong growth all over the world. Our exports showed strong sales. Mandarins, Cara Cara oranges and lemons, too, benefited from higher sales.”
Kaprielian agrees. “People were looking for Vitamin C.” But, she adds, “other citrus boosts Vitamin C as well.”“We got a huge demand bump from COVID,” Morris says, adding the pandemic also stimulated sales of home delivery, meal plans and food box programs. “Now more people are going back to the store, but some of those programs have continued.”
He encourages use of social media to teach consumers about the nutritional benefits of organic citrus, and the Homegrown Organic Growers network of growers uses interactions with their customers via social media to build confidence with their products and stimulate interest in their vast line of products.
AVAILABILITY BOLSTERS SALES
Organic grower/shippers typically grow numerous varieties. What’s more, they enjoy relationships with other growers, plus arrangements to obtain imports to be year-round suppliers.
Availability, of course, is a major price determinant.
Each of Porterville Citrus’s eight facilities specializes in one variety. For organic navels, October through June; blood oranges, January through March; Cara Cara, December to February; Valencia oranges, April to October; Minneolas, January to March; mandarins, January to February; lemons, February to May; Star Ruby grapefruit,, April to June. Of those, Devers adds, “California navels are our largest seller.”
For conventional shoppers, PCI offers six additional varieties.
Grower-shipper Fruit World Company Inc., features an extensive array of USDA-certified organic citrus. Because they are grown in all three California districts, lemons are available all year. Their six varieties of oranges span navel, Cara Cara, Blood, and Valencia.
Although primarily organic, Fruit World can supply conventional early mandarins as well.
Their state-of-the art packaging options fit their sustainable missions, with mostly recyclable and compostable choices.
Melissa’s/World Variety Produce combines global access with local sourcing, offering organic Kishu and Lee mandarins, Satsuma and Gold Nugget tangerines, kumquats, Meyer lemons, plus an assortment of the familiar oranges, grapefruit and limes.
From fall into winter, Homegrown Organic Farms’ naval, Cara Cara and blood oranges augment their spring and summer Valencia oranges. Various tangerines, which include mandarins, highlight colder months, while grapefruit, pummelos, and lemons assure citrus tastes all year. Imported Mexican limes, too, provide everyday access.
Wonderful Citrus, Delano, CA, sustainably produces several citrus varieties, including grapefruits, mandarins, lemons, limes and oranges, and that product line is growing, says Zak Laffite, president. “We are excited about the launch of Organic Halos and the expansion of our organic lime program within the next 12 months.”
Hometown Organic Farms’ Morris reports that their ongoing citrus cultural methods can affect the harvest season and, consequently, supply, by procedures to influence maturity.
World Groves, a new company specializing in limes/citrus sourcing, plans organic limes from Peru initially. Leader Alex Teague explains his team’s mission. “There is a need to stabilize the lime market’s pricing and supply. Also, very young trees will soon produce oranges, lemons, grapefruit and mandarins as well.”
As one of the premier shippers within Sunkist, PCI ships nearly 50% of its crops around the world, both conventional and organic.
SAVVY RETAIL SALES
Devers says the best citrus display depends on the retailer. “Some co-mingle conventional and organic fruit,” he reports. For identifying organics, Devers notes PCI uses green bags for organic products, and stickers designate organic fruit. He notes that Sunkist would also label the organic product.
Retailers can group citrus together as a category, Schueller notes.“Summer displays are typically more basic. Winter sales become stronger with greater availability,” he says, adding seasonal demand peaks and valleys influence display strategies.
Kaprielian points out that Fruit World works individually with their customers on point-of-sale and promotional ideas. She suggests retailers and foodservice operators “can excite their patrons with Fruit World’s specialties. Satsuma mandarins, Minneolas, Cara Cara oranges and Meyer lemons stand out equally on a retailer shelf or a restaurant plate. Sweet limes, low-acid and juicy, transform an ordinary limeade into a party beverage.”
Morris reinforces a proven method of more sales: “Provide really good fruit.” He notes that some of the market is mature, and recognizes the demand for oranges, mandarins and lemons due to consumer familiarity.
He also points out that in winter, organic citrus “doesn’t compete as much with watermelons and berries.”
Although citrus is seasonal, imports and variety choices can smooth seasonality.
LOWER PRODUCTION FORECAST
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) latest crop report, March 2023, the USDA forecast for all citrus in 2022–23 is down 15% from the 2021–22 report. The tangerine group is the only commodity forecast to be higher. If realized, USDA says production of tangerines, mandarins and tangelos is predicted to be 24% higher than the last season.
Reflecting the hurricane disasters and citrus canker plus the citrus greening diseases of Florida, the all-orange (both conventional and organic) forecast is predicted to be down 25% from the last season. Because Texas and California higher production will not offset Florida’s loss, grapefruit is expected to decline 12%. Lemon production is forecast to be 9% lower, with California production slightly augmented by Arizona.