Because of difficulty in finding suitable land, one of the biggest obstacles for suppliers of organic produce is meeting demand.
That theme was top of mind during a breakout session featuring suppliers at the recent Organic Produce Summit, held in Monterey, CA. Titled “Organic Produce Innovation: Next Generation, Next Geography,” a trio of speakers and moderator Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association explored the topic. The OTA executive began the discussion asking the group what the biggest challenge is with organic produce.
“Available ground is the biggest challenge,” said Jerrett Stoffel, vice president of operations for Taylor Farms in Salinas, CA. He noted that most of the conventional ground that is relatively easy to transition to organic production has already been converted. Taylor Farms continues to look for new ground but it is difficult to find, and much more expensive to convert.
Greg Holzman, founder of Purity Organics, said he travels extensively and continually tries to convince growers all over the world to switch to organic production. As such the company sources extensively from Central America and South America for its eponymous juices. Purity Organics only has an organic option that it offers to its customers, so it really can’t help growers market their transitional product.
Soren Bjorn, executive vice president of Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. in Watsonville, CA, said that is not the case with his firm. Because of some very conservative residue standards by some export buyers, he said transitional fruit is a good match for Driscoll’s export sales, which does help the company “sell” the concept of organic production to its growers. However, Driscoll’s relies on growers all over the world for its output and each of those growers must make their own business decision about growing organic berries. The company does have an aggressive program, especially in Mexico, to help new growers get started, which may help alleviate some supply issues in the future.
Lewis of OTA noted that the trade association is working with the federal government on standards that will allow for the marketing of transitional fruit as growers move their production from conventional to organic. While this may convince some growers to transition from conventional to organic, he said this idea has detractors as some practitioners do not want to cannibalize organic sales nor create an “organic light” category.
Bjorn believes genetics, technology and geography will play important roles in increasing the supply of organic berries. He said genetic research resulting in new varieties could allow production on marginal land, and should help increase yields as well. He also said that advancements in the use of bio-pesticides will help organic berries deal with pest pressures. Advancements in technology, Bjorn said, could help growers move the crop out of the soil and into potted production, which may allow a version of factory farming and greatly increase the supply of available land. The company is also continually exploring new regions of the world where strawberry production, including organic production, may take root.
Stoffel said that organic spinach is having a very difficult time because of disease problems for which there is no solution for organic production. At this point in time, he said “organic spinach is probably not a sustainable crop.”
The suppliers also talked about climate change and discussed its impact on both conventional and organic production. Lewis said warming temperatures have allowed the state of Washington to have a crop landscape that rivals California. While a warming trend in more northern locations may open up land for fruit and vegetable production of all kinds, other areas are getting too warm to grow some traditional crops. Even in Oxnard, CA, Bjorn said there are fields that no longer get much ocean cooling and so they are no longer suitable for strawberry production.
Stoffel said moving to areas that are now warmer may offer some opportunities, but generally those crop windows are shorter and require a lot more planning.
The three panelists took a much different view of the direction each of their individual companies will be taking in the near and distant future. Bjorn said Driscoll’s is concentrating on its four berry crops — strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries — with no plans to diversify. Holzman said Purity Organics is always looking to add to its stable of operations and added that the firm’s papaya production is on the rise. Stoffel indicated that Taylor Farms will basically grow anything it can sell. “We are driven by consumer tastes,” he said.