Organic food sales boom during pandemic

PORTLAND — The produce section at New Seasons Market in Portland was bustling on a weekday afternoon. Customers were filling carts and handbaskets with organic produce.

Grocers and industry experts say the pandemic has driven record sales and interest in organic food.

“I think there’s probably a combination of reasons. Certainly there’s the local connection and people want to feel secure and have access to a stable food source. But I also think people are just really tuned into health right now,” said Sarah Brown, education and advocacy director at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that certifies organic producers.

Brown, herself a farmer, said interest in her organic products has doubled since COVID-19 hit.

According to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, the trend extends beyond Oregon; organics are experiencing record sales nationwide. Organic food sales skyrocketed during the run on grocery stores in March, but even as markets have settled, sales remain strong.

“Sales of organic fresh produce show no signs of slowing and continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of the Organic Produce Network, said in a statement.

The Organic Trade Association’s report for the third quarter of 2020 shows organic fresh produce sales are 16% higher than the same timeframe last year.

The West is leading in terms of growth rate. This quarter in the western U.S., sales of organic produce are up 20% higher than last year in the same timeframe and region.

Mike Boyle, vice president of sales and sourcing at Organically Grown Co., a wholesale distributor, said many consumers are return customers simply buying larger volumes, but he said the organic movement also picked up new consumers.

Packaged salads, fruits and herbs have generated the highest growth, data show. Berries are the top organic fruit seller, generating more than $217 million in sales, followed by apples and bananas.

Experts say consumers have also purchased larger volumes of organic meat, poultry, eggs and milk during COVID-19.

One farmer told Small Ag Press she spent weeks trying to buy a freezer, but Home Depot, Lowe’s, Jerry’s and other suppliers told her they were sold out and back-ordered for months since more Americans are buying freezers this year to stock up on locally sourced meat.

Organic produce is still a small segment of the overall produce sector, but experts say the numbers of organic farms and acres are growing.

Certifiers say more farms are going organic.

“As a certifier, what I can speak to is that there has been no slowdown in applicants getting certified. You’d think with disruptions in the supply chain, you’d see a slowdown, but farms and companies are as interested as ever in getting certified,” said Brown of Oregon Tilth.

Experts predict consumer interest will remain strong.

“I think that the organic industry is going to continue to grow,” said Boyle of Organically Grown Co.