KANSAS CITY — More and more Americans are searching for organic alternatives to many of their traditional fresh department favorites, and organic fresh product continues to lead the way.

“The demand for organic fresh produce has remained strong,” said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing for Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit. “As such, we have made investments to expand our overall organic program. Not only are we planting new acreage of organic orchards, but we are actively transitioning our conventional orchards to meet demands.”

As demand for organic has increased, Sage has been able to increase its volume and ship apples and pears later into the season, Sinks said.

Sage wrapped up its organic apple and pear deals in mid- to late spring. In the organic apple category, Sage ships red delicious, granny smith, gala, fuji, pink lady and Honeycrisp. Pear varieties include bosc, Anjou and bartlett.

This is the second year that Sage has partnered with shelf life-extending specialist Apeel Sciences on its organic apple crop.

Fruit treated with Apeel’s solution suffers less moisture loss on the retail shelf and provide consumers with a better, more crisp and flavorful eating experience, Sinks said. Organic gala, fuji, Honeycrisp, granny smith and pink lady all received the treatment.

Apple and pear season may be over, But Sage is looking forward to a strong summer for organic dark sweet cherries, Sinks said.

“Overall, our fruit size, quality and volume should be good this year,” Sinks said. “And we’re seeing an increase in demand for organic cherries how.”

That said, demand for cherries isn’t nearly as strong as demand for organic apples or pears, he added. But it is starting to catch up.

“We’re just now beginning to see it take off in certain markets.”

Organic cherries are much more labor-intensive to grow, which results in higher retail pricing, Sinks said. That higher pricing turns off many consumers. But as Americans continue to look for new ways to eat more healthfully, organic cherries are more likely to make it into baskets, he said.

Industry-wide, the Northwest cherry crop is up 2.5 to 3% and will continue growing in the coming years, Sinks predicted.

More acreage, longer seasons

Thanks to increased acreage, Yakima, Wash.-based Domex Superfresh Growers expect to ship more organic apples than ever this year, said Catherine Gipe-Stewart, the company’s communications manager.

Superfresh’s high-volume organic varieties — gala, fuji and granny smith —will ship through July. Galas will be available in promotable volumes, but fuji and granny supplies will be tighter, Gipe-Stewart said. 

And while Superfresh’s organic golden delicious, honeycrisp and pink lady apples wound up in June, they shipped later this year than they ever have before. Some varieties are seeing huge production jumps this year, with pink lady leading the way with a more than 200% increase. The same is true for club varieties: the company’s Autumn Club volumes are up by 35%, and organic Cosmic Crisp volumes more than doubled.

“We are pleased to extend our offerings to near year-round as our volume grows,” Gipe-Stewart said. “We will start packing organic gala and honeycrisp apples in early August, creating a nearly year-round organic Washington grown program. We highly encourage retailers to plan aggressive new crop promotions of new crop organic gala and honeycrisp in August and September.”

In addition to apples, Superfresh will ship organic cherries will be available in June, supplementing the company’s conventional cherry program that runs through late August.

Organic blueberries will ship from mid-June to the end of August. About half of Superfresh’s blueberries are now organic, and the percentage continues to increase, Gipe-Stewart said. Organic kiwi berries will pick up the slack in September after blueberries wind down; for the first time, this year’s crop is 100% organic. Superfresh also is shipping organic apricots this summer.

Superfresh is also the top grower of organic pears in the United States, Gipe-Stewart said.

New for the company this year is refreshed Superfresh Organics branding. What Gipe-Stewart calls “new stately purple packaging” is available for pears, apples, and cherries.

“The bright pops of color create eye-catching grocery displays, and the purple signifies to consumers that these products are organic,” she said.

Better storage, near-year-round coverage

Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers expects to ship organic apples through the summer, said Brianna Shales, marketing director.

“We have great qualities on core varieties like fuji, pink lady, gala and others to carry retailers through the summer,” she said.

More than 30% of the apples Stemilt grows are certified organic. Volumes are growing every year, and that growth is focused on the varieties consumers are clamoring for, Shales said: Honeycrisp, fuji, and pink lady, as well as up-and-comers like SweeTango.

Organic apples used to have a shorter season, Shales said. For several years now, however, the industry has improved storage practices in order to supply core organic apples for most months of the year.

Organic cherries from Stemilt began shipping in June.

In addition to apples and cherries, Stemilt ships organic apricots, peaches and nectarines in the summer.

Stemilt looks forward to promotable volumes and high quality in all programs.

“Everything is looking great. We are very optimistic about the quality ahead for organic cherries and stone fruits,” Shales said. “We have a great climate for peaches and nectarines, with long, warm days and cool nights. These fruits really thrive in that climate, and it helps us to grow fruits with vibrant hues, complex flavors, and great size profiles. We’re eager to get the season started and expect strong pull for organics, including cherries and stone fruits.”

The company’s all-organic crop of apricots began shipping in mid-June.

“Our crop is up after a few years of reduced crops due to frost,” Shales said. “This makes organic apricots a great item for promotion during the big 4th of July holiday.”

In mid-July, Stemilt will kick off its all-organic peach and nectarine deals. Harvest of fruit, which is packed under the Artisan Organics label, is expected to continue through September.

For the second year, Stemilt will pack premium, hand-selected organic peaches and nectarines under its Top Pick program. Fruit is selected from the tops of trees, where it gets extra sunlight that yields superior color, size and flavor, Shales said.

“We choose the best fruit to go into a box that is boldly branded as ‘the most incredible fruit ever.’ It’s a bright box that grabs shoppers’ attention.”

Double-digit growth

As they have been for decades, bananas and pineapples are the flagship products of Charlotte, N.C.-based Dole Food Co.’s organic fruit program this year, said Bil Goldfield, the company’s director of corporate communications. Weather in 2021 has generally been good, he said, with abundant volumes of high-quality fruit available.

Dole continues to see year-over-year growth in aggregate organic fruit volume and sales. The company’s volumes grew 7.4% and sales were up 6.2% in sales in 2019; and 14.1% in volume and 10.9% in sales in 2020. And thus far in 2020, volumes are up 2.9% and sales 7.3%. 

“Dole started its organic banana program almost 25 years ago, and we are now the largest grower and distributor of premium organic bananas in the US,” Goldfield said. “Our diverse sourcing network has allowed us to keep up with the increasing demand for organic bananas in recent years.”  

While promotional boosts and retailer programs lead to lifts in conventional banana sales for Dole, organic is where the company sees the greatest opportunity for significant long-term growth, he added.    

Dole is seeing similar growth in its organic pineapple business, where it also leads in US shipments. 

As demand for organic fruit continues to grow, Dole is expanding the percentage of its total fruit product mix devoted to organic, Goldfield said. 

From 2017 to 2020, organic as a share of total fruit rose from 10.2% to 11.7%. During that period, organic bananas were the big gainer, rising from 9.3% to 11.9% of all bananas, while Dole’s organic pineapple share remained the same. 

Sage rolls out new organic cherry pouch bag

In the 2021 cherry season, all of the organic dark sweet cherries marketed by Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit will be packed in new Bio-Able Solutions pouch bags.

With increased consumer concerns over single-use plastic, as well as a heightened awareness of the availability of more sustainable options, The Earth-friendly pouches are a perfect fit for Sage, said Chuck Sinks, president of sales and marketing.

“We are actively seeking alternative solutions to traditional packaging,” he said. “Unfortunately, traditional plastics do not rapidly degrade in our natural setting, and if they are not properly recycled, they build up in landfills, pollute the environment and disrupt our ecosystems.”

Bio-Able Solutions packs directly addresses plastic and food packaging sustainability, he said. Enabled with bio-assimilation technology, the bags are 100% recyclable and uniquely formulated to fully degrade in both marine and terrestrial environments, leaving behind zero micro-plastic waste.

The pouches are ASTM 5526 certified, ASTM 6954 Tier 1 certified and FDA-approved.