Demand Remains Strong for Organic Grapes

03/23/2011 - 14:38

Demand Remains Strong for Organic Grapes

Original Article from The Packer

The desert climate of California's Coachella Valley, which discourages pests and disease, lends itself well to producing good-quality organic table grapes, grower-shippers say. A number of the region's growers already have organic programs, and some others are considering one.
Drake Larson, partner in Drake Larson Sales, Thermal, Calif., has grown organic grapes in the valley since 1979. Besides the traditional varieties, like flames, perlettes, sugraones and beauty seedless, Larson offers a proprietary variety called the Mariah, which he describes as a black, sweet grape that customers in Japan are especially fond of.

Next year, he will add sweet scarlets to his organic product line. More than half of the grapes the company sells are organic, said Larson, who also markets organic grapes for neighboring growers. Bakersfield, Calif.-based Anthony Vineyards also is heavily into organic grapes, said co-owner Bob Bianco. About one-third of the company's grapes are organically grown. Anthony Vineyards, which has had an organic program for eight years, offers organic grapes starting in May in Coachella and continuing to November in the San Joaquin Valley. Bianco said he added organic grapes because he saw a demand for them. That demand may have slipped a bit recently with the shaky economy, but the company still has organic customers, he said.

"We're in it for the long pull," Bianco said. "We don't think it's a fad. We think it's here to stay."

Bakersfield-based Sun World International LLC grows organic Superior Seedless green grapes in Coachella, said Rick Paul, table grapes category director. The company also grows organic flames and Superior Seedless grapes in the San Joaquin Valley and, for the second year, will import organic grapes from Mexico, he said. Thermal, Calif.-based Gold Coast Growers LLC recently acquired some virgin ground that's a natural for an organic program, said Mike Rocker, partner/field manager.

"We plan to go in that direction," he said.

Some customers always are looking for new sources of organic product, and the land that Gold Coast Growers has acquired may enable the company to develop a niche for early-season organic grapes, he said. Steve Root, president and chief executive officer for East West Unlimited LLC in Coachella, Calif., said he, too, might implement an organic program at some point. Many consumers will buy organic grapes if they have a choice, he said. But some want aesthetically pleasing grapes that closely resemble conventional product, and those can be difficult to produce. Richard Bagdasarian Inc., Mecca, Calif., has some sugraone and flame varieties in the second year of transitioning to organic, said Franz De Klotz, vice president of marketing. They should be ready for marketing next season.

The organic grapes should work well with the company's organic green and red bell peppers and eggplant sold through the firm's vegetable marketing arm, Pasha Marketing LLC, he said. Even with the recession and the premium prices organic grapes command, demand has remained high, according to grower-shippers. Larson said volume at his company remained unchanged last year from 2008, even though the overall economy was as bad as or worse than the previous year. He thinks an uptick is in store for this season.

"We are very focused on flavor," he said. "There are a certain number of retailers who are dialed into flavor."

At Anthony Vineyards, Bianco said there must be an economic incentive for a grower to produce organic grapes, since they cost more to grow.

"Hopefully, there will always be a distinction, and some people will pay more for organic," he said. "There seems to be more call for it all the time." Even many mainstream supermarkets now stock organic grapes, he said. "Even if it's only 10% or 15% of their sales," Bianco said, "they're all starting to carry organic."