If you are wondering whether a shift to organic produce is right for your business in the new year, now’s a good time to evaluate 2020’s impact on markets and minds. While many consumers and industries are struggling with the effects of the pandemic, the organic produce industry realized significant growth. If there is one thing consumers are seeking right now it is peace of mind … or safety. We cannot deny there is a strong perception of safety and health associated with foods marketed as organic. If you are an organic produce grower, you have a unique opportunity to be an authentic solution to an excessively large public health problem.
Reports of record-breaking sales in organic produce were already hitting the newsstands by June of 2020. By the time Q3 reports were in, volume and sales were up by 15% and 16% respectively, according to the Organic Produce Network (OPN). It also bares mentioning that grocery stores buy more organic produce than restaurants. With consumers forced to stay home and most restaurant business on hold, it is easy math.
What is organic’s ceiling?
It has long been a topic of debate whether organic produce would or could capture a majority of market share with consumers. Yet, purchasing trends have been pointed — if in a slow and steady fashion — in that direction. At the end of 2019, organic produce already made up 15% of all produce sold, with sales up 5.6% according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). Once all the numbers are crunched for 2020, larger increases will no doubt manifest. Wherever you fall on the issue of organics, it is hard to ignore the real market momentum.
One could argue that when or if the restaurant industry is able to rebound post pandemic, we may see some softening of organic produce sales. Even so, once consumers have been trained — or trained themselves —into a new way of buying and cooking produce, it is not likely that they will return completely to previous habits. I suspect post-pandemic, many consumers will stick with a reduced eating-out budget and more home cooking, including the organic produce that has provided safety and comfort during difficult times.
Ultimately the term ‘organic’ equates to ‘healthy’ for many consumers. This is an incredible advantage for the organic produce industry.
Beyond perceived safety of foods, it is nearly impossible to argue that being healthy and eating healthy will not continue to be a major consumer focus in 2021. COVID-19 has been a rude awakening for many Americans. With the immense stress on our minds and bodies, what and how we eat — and its impact on our stamina and ability to fight off illness — is front and center in our minds. It is something that’s forefront in my own mind as I am writing this column.
With organizations such as the World Health Organization, Harvard Medical School, The American Society of Nutrition and The New York Times (just to name a few) publishing pieces on how diet impacts nutrition and health in relation to Coronavirus, diet and the pandemic are now inextricably connected. Coupled with building resilience to viruses, many Americans are also going to be extremely focused on getting back to a “pre-COVID-19 weight.” Fresh produce and plant-based products are going to play a big part in the grand reset.
Educate your customers
While organic produce sales are on the rise, so is organic food fraud — especially with imports. As a result, the USDA is proposing strengthening their regulations around organic certification. You can read more on their website here. While this may mean more hoops for you to jump through in a transition to organic production, transitioning a greenhouse operation to organic production is in some ways simpler than in-ground farming.
If you are considering going organic, or you have already made the commitment, consider also committing to better consumer education as a core part of your marketing. Education and consumer understanding of the benefits of organic produce needs improvement. I would love to see organic producers doing more behind the scenes videos for consumer consumption.
Not only is how you grow your produce fascinating to your end-users, but it also builds trust and confidence in your brand and organics in general. Because you will also need to combat public perception of organic produce fraud and food safety, transparency will be even more important. If you grow and sell locally, or in a small region, this is a big benefit you can leverage in your consumer marketing.
Ultimately the term “organic” equates to “healthy” for many consumers. This is an incredible strategic advantage for the organic produce industry as we move forward into 2021. If you have been considering a shift to organic production, 2020 may just be the tipping point you needed to nudge you forward.