Organic produce business skyrocketing, lots of room for growth

November 8, 1996
From Correspondent Carolyn O'Neil
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ATLANTA (CNN) -- Raising and selling organically-grown foods is no longer the business solely of flower children in tie-dye overalls, transporting their wares in Volkswagen microbuses.

Today, people who grow fruits and vegetables without using pesticides are finding their basic business plan is one with strong growth potential, as the demand for organics rises exponentially.

Sales of organic produce have risen to a record $2.8 billion per year. And according to the Organic Market Overview Report, organic sales have increased by more than 20 percent per year for six years in a row.

Farmers who bring their produce to the weekly farmer's market in Napa, California, say business has never been better. "It's definitely every year, more business," said one seller. "It's an undersaturated market."

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In the Morningside community of Atlanta, Saturday mornings are becoming prime organic shopping time, as a tiny locally-organized farmer's market springs up for a few hours every weekend.

"People are glad to get fresh most of what we see here. It hasn't been sprayed," said Bonnie Nichols, who runs Purple Moon Farm in Acworth, Georgia. "No pesticides produces a better product."

Guenter Seeger, the chef at Seeger's Restaurant in Atlanta, agreed. "I think when you've tasted these products you don't want to eat anything else," he said.

Concerns about pesticide residue and for the environment have created a legion of loyal fans nationwide, who make a special trip to find their favorites, and often pay 20 percent or more for organics than for conventional foods. Organic aficionados are confident that the food they consume is both safer and healthier.

The Pavich Family Farms of California made the switch to organic 25 years ago, well before organically-grown food became a billion-dollar market. Today, their farms are the world's largest growers of organic table grapes.

Asking for organic produce used to be radical and unusual, but Tonya Pavich says today, "It's becoming conservative, it's becoming sophisticated." It's also becoming easier to find. Most major supermarkets, from D.C. to Des Moines, now feature a growing selection of organically-grown foods.

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With the demand for their product becoming practically mainstream, organic farmers say their hard work -- spending long hours weeding instead of spraying, for example -- and innovations like fabric row covers, which keep bugs from chewing up the lettuce, are finally beginning to pay off.

What's more, "The competition has made each of us better," said Larry Tiller, of Warm Springs Farm in Healdsburg, California. "My product today versus 20 years ago is far superior."

Organics have plenty of room for future growth: Organically-grown fruits and vegetables still represent only 2 percent of overall produce sales.

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