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Research validates Stemilt Growers’ decision to increase its organics line

A decision by Stemilt Growers Inc., based in Wenatchee, WA, to bolster its organic offerings continues to be validated by ongoing market research, according to the company. “Since 2006, organic has grown at 94.6 percent,” said Director of Marketing Roger Pepperl. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Stemilt began its major push into the organic sector in 1989. “Eleven years ago, organic apples were limited by variety,” Mr. Pepperl told The Produce News May 25. Since then, newer plantings include varietals that have gained in popularity over the past decade.

Today, organics account for more than 20 percent of the company’s overall fruit volume. “We farm organics for flavor. We see a bright, bright future,” Mr. Pepperl said.

Despite hiccups in the national economy, he said organic sales have not flagged. Indeed, he credited the foresight of conventional retailers who have opened their doors to organic promotion plans. Going back to 2006, he said organics accounted for 3.4 percent of retail produce. In 2010, that number grew to 5.4 percent. “I think that’s really an interesting fact,” he commented. “Now, organic volume is across the board, and producers are growing what pops up on the radar screen.”

He went on to say organic programs can distinguish producers in the marketplace. And he provided an illustration that is near and dear to the company’s heart.

“We didn’t realize how much peril the peach and nectarine industry would be in,” he stated. Problems related to cold chain issues at the store level, were causing fruit to become mushy. “We took the peach and nectarine category into a high flavor organic program,” he continued. “The higher sugar content protects the fruit in the cold chain.”

The transition to organic peaches and nectarines began seven years ago, and this is Stemilt’s fourth year farming these commodities as 100 percent organic product for the marketplace. The trees have reached a point in their maturity that enhances overall flavor profile. “It’s been the best thing we ever did,” Mr. Pepperl said of the decision.

Organic pear production is also growing for Stemilt.

Consumers want to know more about food production. “People are taking much more interest in knowing where their food comes from. In my opinion, you can’t grow ‘locally’ unless you have a story to tell,” he went on to say. Stemilt has placed increasing emphasis on telling its grower stories through grower-centric secondary display bins, bags and through social media outlets.

The company has capitalized on the natural features of Washington’s growing districts. “Our apples are grown in a rural mountainous environment,” he explained. By telling the story, he said cities such as Seattle, Portland and Tacoma consider Washington apples to be ‘local’ product.

A recent study of Generation X and Generation Y shoppers and their apple purchases was revealing. Historically, apples have moved well through the marketplace because they are seen as a commodity with a good price and good taste. However, Mr. Pepperl said that the survey of Generation X and Generation Y consumers concluded that 24 percent purchased apples based on quality and 9 percent purchased based upon taste.

“The perception is we don’t have as good eating quality in the ground,” Mr. Pepperl commented, saying grower stories can clear up such misconceptions.