Using environmentally sound, sustainable practices to produce tree fruit is one of the core values of supplier-partners of FirstFruits Marketing of Washington, a new marketing firm in Yakima, Washington.
Organic fruit will be an important part of the manifest at FirstFruits. Sales projections for organic fruit sales in the first year are around 1.5 million cartons. Broetje Orchards and Columbia Valley Fruit LLC, the two current suppliers of FirstFruits, produce about 25 percent of the states organic tree fruit volume. Broetje added 300 acres of organic apples this year to its 900 acres of tree fruit already certified organic.
Although it may be an enviable position to have a quarter of the states organic volume to market, it cuts both ways, said Jim Hazen, business manager of Broetje Orchards. Yes, there’s obvious value in having that amount of tonnage, but it’s also going to be challenging to market that much volume in a fashion that returns a premium to the grower.
Orlin Knutson, one of three partners in Columbia Valley Fruit, has been an organic grower since the early 1980s, even before organic certification programs were in place. Knutson said that the organic volume represented by FirstFruits is a big deal, but he quickly adds that organic tree fruit production is a dynamic landscape driven by the ebb and flow of economics, and one that rapidly changes.
Knutson and Columbia Valley partners Mark Tudor of Grandview and Chris Vizena, Quincy, worked with Clasen Fruit Company for several years before taking over the apple-packing facilities in 2008. Columbia Valley Fruit is a medium-sized packing house, handling around 1.2 million to 1.3 million cartons of apples annually. About half of their apple pack is organic. Knutson grows organic stone fruit that will also be marketed by FirstFruits, but another packer packs his stone fruit.
“FirstFruits has an excellent organic marketing program, and with that much volume, I know that attention will be paid to organic marketing,” he said.
“It’s been an interesting journey, seeing the growth of the organic market through the years,” Knutson mused. “Today, there is a lot more research-based information and tools available to help farm organically than in the early years. But we’ll see what the future holds.”
Premium prices for organic fruit have eroded the last two years as supply dramatically increased at the same time consumers cut back their on food spending due to the recession.
The organic consumer is just as price sensitive as other consumers, Hazen said, adding that he sees the downturn in organic prices as an opportunity to expand organic offerings in new markets. A lot of retail stores offer organic produce, but there are still many that only give it small shelf space. We see this as an opportunity to expand shelf space and use price to bring product to new places.
He thinks one of the biggest challenges for organic marketers and producers is being able to profitably sell the entire organic manifest. “Organic fruit that’s the right variety and size still commands a premium,” he said, “and prices are good for organic slicers. But we have to be able to sell all sizes, small and large. We have work to do as an industry.”