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Demand for organic tree fruits is outstripping supply, says Roger Wechsler, president of the organic produce marketer CF Fresh of Sedro-Woolley, Washington.

The company recently teamed up with megamarketer Columbia Marketing International of Wenatchee, Washington, to supply organic apples, pears, and cherries to major retailers. Wechsler said CMI’s retail customers feel they need to offer organic fruits in order to be competitive.

“I think the retail trade has realized that consumer demand is out there, and they have to be competitive in attracting customers.”

CMI has supplied mainly conventional fruits up to this point. It has marketed the conventional fruit of McDougall and Sons, Wenatchee, which is one of CMI’s owners, but CF Fresh has marketed McDougall’s organic fruit. CMI now feels a need to provide its customers with organic fruit, he said.

CF Fresh, which has offices in Oregon, California, and Boston, now has a sales desk at CMI in Wenatchee, where the two companies will work to build business with CMI’s customer base and recruit additional organic tonnage, though McDougall will be the major supplier.

Domestic focus

CF Fresh’s existing business will be independent of CMI, though it might supplement CMI’s organic supplies in the off season. The company specializes in organic tree fruits from Washington, California, and South America and has year-round supplies. It is a major exporter. Wechsler said it handles most of the organic Washington apples and pears exported to the United Kingdom.

However, for at least the next couple of years, the joint venture will focus on building a strong organic program in the domestic market, he said.

Organic tree fruit production appears to be increasing, particularly at some of the big companies that have their own orchards, he said. Organic cherry production is increasing, along with overall cherry production. Organic production is more feasible since the introduction of the GF-120 bait to control cherry fruit fly, he said. “That’s made a tremendous difference. Growing cherriess organically is an easier proposition than it was until even a couple of years ago.”

Up to now, organic cherries have fetched high prices because of limited supply, but Wechsler said growers shouldn’t set their expectations too high.

“The days of $50 cherries are gone,” he said. “We think there’s an opportunity for reasonable premiums and major volumes now that more people are getting into it in a serious way.”

Supplies of organic pears are still tight, he said. “We haven’t seen as much evidence of pears going into transition, but it may just be that people are being quiet about it.”

Organic production seems to go in cycles, he said. A major increase came in the late 1980s after the Alar scare, and a second wave came in the late 1990s with some slower growth in production.

“Now, demand has exceeded supply, and whenever there’s a crop that’s short, everybody jumps into it,” he said.

But demand is also growing. “What I see happening is that the retail side is trying to catch up with consumer demand now, and the production side is now responding to the retail side doing that. At some point you’ll get to a point of equilibrium again where supply and demand are in balance.”

Prices

Organic apple growers have seen their premiums erode over the years, but Wechsler said prices are higher this season than last year.

“The increase in demand has been reflected in prices on the 2005 crop, and I see that continuing over the next couple of years. Premiums are better right now than they were a year ago.” m