Organics enjoy steady Midwest growth

The Midwest may not be the cutting edge of organic produce growth, but consumer demand remains strong.

“Independents want it but hate to pay full price at times,” says Rob Strube, president of Chicago’s Strube Celery & Vegetable Company, BB #:102030 adding that they are “always wanting deals.”

But he also points out that in his market, “we have not felt it on a larger scale, as maybe the East Coast” has.

Sam Maglio, president of Maglio Companies, headquartered in Glendale, WI, BB #:105281 sees a different scene in Minneapolis.

“The consumer, when shopping for products to use at home, will often make an organic choice. The restaurant chef, on the other, might stress local over organic in order to avoid raising his food cost upwards of 30 percent. The consumer does seem to give foodservice a pass for the most part on organic produce.”

Maglio points out that “the disposable income of a region also helps drive the organic demand. Minneapolis has sixteen-plus co-ops catering to those shoppers, while Chicago has two—yet Chicago has almost three times the population of Minneapolis.”

He adds that his company is “in the midst of adding a dedicated organic fresh-cut processing room to handle the impending demand for organic fresh-cut.”

In Wisconsin, Bill Dietz, president of Heartland Produce Company in Kenosha, WI, BB #:133466 estimates his company has seen a 10 percent rise in demand for organics over the past couple of years. “The organic side is definitely a trend,” he emphasizes, adding that he’s seeing “a lot more packaged organics.”

Dietz acknowledges a kind of tension in organic consumers. On the one hand, they want to contribute to lower use of pesticides. But they are also concerned about the environmental impact of packaging, so there is some “pushback” there.

From the retailer’s point of view, there’s a lot to be said for packaged produce. It “cuts down on labor costs,” says Dietz, as well as on “misrings at the cash register”: with unpackaged produce, clerks fairly commonly ring up organics as lower-cost conventional items.

“There’s a lot more packaged produce now” as a whole, Dietz concludes. “When I started, everything was bulk. Strawberries came in flats; grapes came in 20-pound bulk packs.”

This is a multi-part spotlight feature on Midwest produce adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.