KANSAS CITY, MO. - The COVID-19 pandemic did not affect supplies of organic fruits and vegetables shipped in the U.S.

In fact, volumes were strong, and demand stronger than ever — thanks in part to the virus, but also to long-existing conditions that have steadily lifted demand for organic product.

Between March 1 and April 18, organic apple sales climbed 18% over the previous year, according to Nielsen data cited by David Roby, brand manager for Yakima, Wash.-based Domex Superfresh Growers.

The coronavirus played some role in that, Roby said, but many other factors were at play, too.

“Consumer sentiment was already shifting towards organic apples as they became more accessible and affordable,” Roby said. “There were a lot of other trends that have boosted organic apples and all produce in general, including the increase in home meal preparation and focus on a healthier diet. These habits could stick with today’s kids for a lifetime, which would be good for health in the United States, and good for farmers.”

Organic apples lend themselves well to bags (consumers want them for perceived safety), value, convenience (grab-and-go/home delivery ease) and kid-friendliness, Roby added.

That’s in addition to the perceived health benefits of organic produce in general.

“Also, in Washington State we had a great supply of organic apples this season, so we were fortunate to be able to support retailers with quick-delivery to accommodate the ‘pantry-filling period,’ and continued promotion of them.”

Beyond COVID-19

The coronavirus has “not really changed anything” about Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Inc.’s organic program, said Jim Grabowski, the company’s marketing director.

Typical seasonality is what’s having more of an impact.

“For most of the time, it's business as usual,” Grabowski said. “Demand for organic strawberries at this time is somewhat like a seesaw. It goes up, levels off, goes down — fairly unpredictable.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that both consumers and retailers don't really know what the new normal is going to be yet.

Availability of organic strawberries was strong heading into summer, Grabowski said — sometimes too strong for the demand. Ironically, that’s due in part to strong demand in the past that led to bigger plantings.

“Growers saw the increase in demand for organics in past years and adjusted and increased growing acreage, so sometimes in these unpredictable times, supplies tend to outweigh even any increased demand,” Grabowski said.

That said, organic demand was increasing at a slow but steady rate prior to the pandemic, he added, so there’s no real reason for organics to not to continue to grow, pandemic or not. People were looking for that perceived healthier option prior to the pandemic which would account for the growing demand.

But with the economy such a question mark, consumers could be less likely to choose organic, Grabowski conceded.

“The problem arises when people start having a harder time paying for the increased cost of the organic option. At this time, it is hard to say what our economy is going to look like in the near future. Will joblessness still be an issue? Will stores and restaurants still be suffering from closings or stricter operating conditions?”

Many factors are playing a part in whether or not people are going to be able to afford the cost of an organic option, he said.

“Hopefully, things reach that ‘new normal’ level sooner rather than later,” he said.

Strawberries are the only organic product Well-Pict grows to complement its conventionally grown strawberries and raspberries. All the berries the company grow are its own proprietary varieties.

At the beginning of the deal, Grabowski reported outstanding color and size and overall excellent quality. Volumes are also at levels where there should be promotable levels of organic strawberries throughout the summer months, he said.

Don’t forget the pears

Organic pears, which are not traditionally on consumer shopping lists, also enjoyed a sales lift, increasing 3% during the 52 weeks ending April 18. That was also largely due to a lift in bagged sales.

The strong spring for Superfresh Growers’ organic apple and pear programs should be a good springboard into summer, where the company will add more organic fruits to its product roster, Roby said.

“Summer is the most exciting time for our organic programs. We will still have a good supply of crisp organic apples, thanks to our supply expansion over the last decade, but in the coming weeks we will add Superfresh organic blueberries, organic dark sweet cherries, organic Rainier cherries, and organic apricots.”

Demand for California-grown organic cherries and blueberries has been strong, and Roby expects that to hold true for Domex Superfresh’s Pacific Northwest-grown organic blueberries and cherries.

In addition, Superfresh Growers will begin harvest of its new-crop organic gala and Honeycrisp apples and bartlett pears in July and August.

Roby expected organic summer fruit to sell well, since families have suspended vacations and will look to elevate family picnics and backyard barbeques.

“We saw this with Memorial Day fruit sales,” he said. “Plus, as communities begin to reopen, we know consumers will be very eager return to grocery stores, where the produce department is already a favorite summer destination.

Permanent effects

The coronavirus also has fueled demand for organic fruit marketed by Vancouver, British Columbia-based Oppy, said Karin Gardner, the company’s executive director of marketing.

And that surge, she said, could be felt even after the “new normal” sets in.

“There are certain consumer attitudes and trends that will persist well after the pandemic,” she said. “One positive thing that has come from these tenuous circumstances is that people are becoming increasingly conscious of their health, as well as more discerning when it comes to the kind of food they eat.”

 It comes as no surprise, then, that US organic fresh produce sales jumped 22% in March and 8% overall for the first quarter.

“Because they’re interconnected with consumers’ concerns over health and wellbeing, it is highly probable that these trends will continue through the pandemic and hopefully translate into long-term habits beyond it,” Gardner added.

 Oppy has long offered retailers a comprehensive organic program that has evolved over time to meet increasing consumer demand, Gardner said. The company’s offerings include blueberries and strawberries, SunGold and green kiwifruit, as well as greenhouse peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and other items.

Another product Oppy is very excited about is its organic ginger, which has seen huge demand, Gardner said.

“We’re now actively fielding interest from various accounts and retailers to expand this program, which indicates the high quality of the ginger, which will begin selling in mid-June.” 

Gardner reported exceptional quality and ample volumes of all organic product heading into summer.

Year-round coverage

Organic fruit sales remain steady for Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers LLC, with some organic apple varieties shipping  year-round thanks to the company’s ability to store organic apples longer, and because of a strong partnership with Argentinian producers, said Brianna Shales, Stemilt’s communications manager.

While some organic apples go out of season in the summer, others are available for year-round, she said.

Stemilt also has a robust roster of organic stone fruit. Organic cherry promotions will peak in July, and starting in mid-July, Stemilt will ship organic peaches and nectarines.

“We’ve been growing these fruits organically for more than a decade, and it’s a great program to build the organic category around,” Shales said. Stemilt expects to have tree-ripened organic stone fruit through September. Heading into the summer deals, Shales said quality and volume expectations was “strong.”

Stemilt’s Artisan Organics peach and nectarine program is a highlight every summer, Shales said, because of the fruit size and flavor differentiation that comes with farming these fruits organically in the company’s arid Washington locales.

“It’s such a great program to build consumer delight around,” she said.

It’s hard to predict what effect the coronavirus will have on organic fruit demand going forward, Shales said. Organic demand was strong pre-pandemic and saw great growth in the first two months of stock-up buying.

Produce sales in general are also up, so it’s a win-win for organic produce suppliers.

But with so many Americans losing their jobs, and even those still employed watching their pocketbooks more closely, organic demand could be affected.

“I think one big unknown will be the economy and whether or not the occasional organic shopper will continue to spend on the premium that organics typically demand,” Shales said.

Looking ahead, Stemilt expects to grow organic volumes of several apple varieties in the coming years, including SweeTango, Pink Lady and Cosmic Crisp.

This story is from the July 2020 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. To view the full magazine, click here.