KANSAS CITY - Retailers and their supplier partners continue to see strong demand for organic fresh fruits and vegetables — and the pandemic has stoked even more interest in the category.

Organic navel oranges continue to perform well at retail for Valencia, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers, said Christina Ward, the company’s director of global brand marketing.

According to Information Resources Inc. data, sales growth of organic navels was up for the third straight season this year. Organic Navel orange volumes grew nearly 20% at retail over the 52 weeks ending Nov. 22, versus the same period last year.

Organic lemons also perform well at retail, Ward said, with a 4% increase in sales during the same period.

Angela Jagiello, director of education and insights for the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., agreed.

“I anticipate a really robust citrus season this year. Availability and variety are both looking good. And, because of citrus’ association with immune health, it will likely be a go-to for shoppers for the next several months.”

First on the shelves from Sunkist during this California season are organic navels, lemons and limes, with specialty citrus following close behind.

This year’s specialty lineup for the co-op includes cara cara oranges, blood oranges, royal mandarins, daisy mandarins, murcott tangerines and minneola tangelos.

Sunkist has increased its organic citrus production by 18% to meet consumer demand this season, Ward said.

Looking ahead, Sunkist’s retail partners are already planning their organic promotions for next year, and orders are already underway for organic California Star Ruby grapefruit available in the spring and organic Valencia oranges available in the summer, she added.

Building its organic identify has been a key goal for Sunkist, Ward said.

“We’ve been a proud provider of USDA-certified organic citrus—and marketing organic citrus—for 15 years, and we continue to strategically innovate and provide the best solutions and resources possible to our retail partners.”

To aid retailers in marketing organic citrus, Sunkist continues to promote its organic square bins to help increase shelf space within a small footprint, Ward said.

And new this season, the co-op is preparing to launch a new packaging design for its full organic citrus portfolio. The new packaging will debut in 2021 and features the Sunkist lollipop, and the design extends to cartons, giro bags, secondary display bins and headers. 

Double-digit pandemic growth

Pandemic buying hit US grocery stores hard in March and April, and organic fruits and vegetables have seen double-digit increases each quarter since, with few signs of slowing, Jagiello said.

As a result, the full supply chain is working to maintain stock levels, while keeping workers healthy. Items with longer shelf lives have done well, Jagiello said (think carrots and apples).

The organic growth rate was well above that for conventional produce, and Jagiello said there are several reasons why:

  • Organic is food for home. Restaurant dining is down dramatically. Many school and cafeterias and foodservice venues are closed. More meals are being cooked at home. Shoppers are thinking more about their personal health and trying to bolster immune systems.
  • This year, there’s also been more of a light shone on the essential workers who produce our food and stock our supermarkets. Organic takes a lighter toll on the workers who plant, harvest and process the food by exposing them and their families to fewer toxic chemicals. There are more than 700 chemicals prohibited in organic production.
  • The ascendance of larger, more destructive wildfires, record droughts, and more destructive storms. These shifting weather patterns are creating an awareness of the immediacy of climate change. Organic has the ability to mitigate climate change by creating soils that sequester more carbon, while also dramatically reducing nitrogen pollution. Organic is good news for the climate, and shoppers are motivated by that.

Apples is a category where OTA is seeing continued expansion of available organic varieties, Jagiello said. There are also more interesting organic mushroom varieties becoming widely available.

And counter to what typically motivates organic shoppers, due to health concerns, people are looking for more packaging, she said. Larger packs are also important as shoppers want to make fewer trips to the store.

Oppy inks deal with top organic avocado shipper

Vancouver, B.C.-based Oppy has expanded its organic footprint with a majority stake in the first company to grow and market organic avocados in the United States.

Oppy’s 65% stake in Eco Farms, a grower and shipper since 1972, is the latest in a series of acquisitions and strategies by the marketer.

“Oppy and Eco Farms’ 360-degree capabilities in the category have combined to create a new avocado tour de force from farm to shelf,” according to Oppy. “The companies will bring to market a new, holistic avocado offering that includes growing and importing premium avocados, ripening in convenient, strategic locations and flexible packaging options in a bright, new brand, as well as marketing, logistical and other services.”

The strategic partnership will create multiple synergies which will allow Eco Farms to capitalize on Oppy’s extensive distribution network and widespread access to market, while Oppy will solidify its existing avocado category which will reap the benefits of vertical integration.

“We are incredibly excited for the opportunity to work with Eco Farms closely. They are a leading player in the avocado category and have a wealth of priceless expertise that they’ve gained over nearly 50 years of operation,” said David Smith, Oppy’s president and chief revenue officer. “The avocado category has seen substantial growth over the last 10 years and is bouncing back from recent market variability as the new Mexican crop begins. Through this partnership we will complement Oppy’s existing avocado programs and will be able to drive the category forward by uniting the unique strengths and advantages of both businesses.”

By integrating with Eco Farms, Oppy will be able to offer high quality organic and conventional avocados from diverse growing regions including Mexico, California, Chile, Colombia and Peru packaged in a fresh new look, according to the company. The Eco Farms brand has been revamped to reflect the new partnership and deliver on the positioning line Green is Good.

The line represents Eco Farms’ commitment to growing flavorful, high-quality fruit using sustainable practices that stand the test of time, like pioneering organic avocado production. Green is Good playfully conveys the excellent nutrition properties of avocados in their familiar green package. It’s timely for the fresh new approach with Oppy as well, according to Steve Taft, Eco Farms’ president and founder.

“We’re confident that by working together we can truly accelerate our growth and bring both of our organizations to new heights,” he said. “Thanks to Oppy’s extensive industry knowledge and connections we can expand at a speed and scale that otherwise would not have been possible, while they can tap into our decades of tried and trusted expertise in this robust category.”

The company's remaining ownership is comprised of Eco Farms and Santiago-based grower-marketer El Parque, which, like Oppy, is also part of the Total Produce Group.

US consumption of avocados has undergone a 9% CAGR between 2008-2018 in a market valued at $6.5 billion, making it one of the fastest growing categories in terms of consumption. Avocado shipments to the U.S. also increased by 13% in the first quarter of 2020. Retail sales meanwhile stood strong during the first months of the lockdown, increasing by 20% year-on-year after rebounding from a decrease in foodservice sales, indicating the category’s resilience and the opportunities ahead.

In addition to avocados, Oppy will eventually market a wide range of citrus and select exotic items in tandem with Eco Farms.

This story was included in the January 2021 issue of Supermarket Perimeter. Read the rest of the magazine here.