Organic produce

Organic produce sales continue strong through the first quarter of 2021.

The pandemic has driven record sales and interest in organic food — and that momentum isn’t yet slowing.

A new report from the Organic Produce Network and Category Partners this month shows that total U.S. organic fresh produce sales for the first quarter of 2021 increased 9.3% from the same period in 2020 — nearly $88 million additional sales.

Conventional produce dollars, in contrast, saw only a modest year-over-year increase at about 2.9% during the first quarter.

By volume sold, organic bananas, carrots and apples ranked as the top drivers at retail this first quarter, according to the report.

By dollar amount sold, the top 10 categories, from highest to lowest, were:

• Pre-packaged salads.

• Berries.

• Apples.

• Herbs and spices.

• Carrots.

• Lettuce.

• Bananas.

• Citrus.

• Tomatoes.

• Potatoes.

Packaged salads, in the No. 1 spot, accounted for 17% of all organic sales.

Sarah Brown, education and advocacy director at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that certifies organic producers, told the Capital Press last year that consumers turned to organic produce during the pandemic for several reasons. People were cooking more at home and appeared to be looking for a sense of security and a stable, local food source.

“But I also think people are just really tuned into health right now,” she said.

Moving into the second quarter of 2021, as pandemic closures ease up and restaurants reopen, the Organic Produce Network report said it’s not yet clear how quickly consumers will return to pre-pandemic purchasing behaviors.

“Once again, sales of organic fresh produce continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of Organic Produce Network, said in a statement. “At the same time, as the country enters a post-COVID environment, with restaurants reopening and other foodservice options available, it appears the double-digit growth rate will be slowing.”

Some experts say it may be easier to predict continued high sales in the direct farm-to-consumers space, where consumers often have longer-term contracts or subscriptions to farms.

The past two months, for example, several organic farms running Community Supported Agriculture programs have told the Capital Press they expect even more CSA shares to be sold this year than in 2020.

Organic certifiers continue to predict more farms will enter the organic space, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Capital Press in an interview last week USDA will be looking at ways to make the transition from conventional to organic production easier.

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