The organic fresh food business continues to grow at healthy rate, with new markets like organic adult beverages emerging. At the same time, while the overall outlook for organics is encouraging, challenges--- like defending the organic brand--- remain.
At the recently held Organic Grower Summit held in Monterey, CA last month expert panels examined how to protect the organic brand, navigate governmental realities and explore best practices of managing the spectrum of new organic consumer products like wine and beer.
Ted Vivatson, Katrina Frey, and Phil LaRocca
Although organic wine and beer have been around for some time, the organic adult beverage market is now going mainstream. Ted Vivatson, founder of the Eel River Brewing Company, the largest organic beer producer in the world, jokingly said he is an overnight success twenty years in the making. While he has always been committed to making beer with organic ingredients, and he’s convinced younger consumers are buying into organic values, he also says the product has to be top notch.
“We have to make an award-winning beer that happens to be organic,” he says, “and continue to educate the consumer on why organic is better.” Katrina Frey, executive director of Frey Vineyards, echoes that sentiment. “For years our customers were baby boomers and they were most interested in health. They liked that we didn’t use sulfites and that we could put the USDA organic seal on our label. Now we are looking to millennials. They want transparency and authentic stories. We are really try to educate the public about that,” she said.
Making wine without the sulfur dioxide additive is part of the organic challenge. Many conventional vintners maintain sulfites are necessary to preserve color and quality, but Frey rejects that notion. “Sulfur dioxide is not the magic bullet,” she insists. Phil LaRocca from LaRocca Vineyards agrees. After years of experimentation he says vineyards like LaRocca and Frey, and others have proven that you can make quality wines without the additive. He says quality fruit is the key and he maintains growing organic produces better tasting grapes.
Protecting that organic brand is always a concern for growers who are playing by the rules. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is tasked with enforcing the regulations governing what can be called organic. Jennifer Tucker, NOP Deputy Administrator, said this year the federal government will be concentrating on strengthening organic control systems, and ferreting out fraud. The vision, she says, is a shared pool of information, known as block chain, which is a network of networks connecting data streams, giving investigators transparent access to information which can help detect and crack down on fraud. Tucker says the newly signed Farm Bill will provide funding for the beginning stages. John McKeon, senior manager of organic compliance for Tanimura & Antle, said California is also beefing up enforcement, but insists growers must do their part by reporting fraud when they see it and owning their own compliance responsibilities. He says every organic grower has a stake in preserving the brand.
Acting as a liaison between growers and the NOP, the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) is charged with identifying issues and trying to get them on the work plan in coordination with the NOP. Eric Schwartz, CEO of United Vegetables Growers Cooperative, has been on the board for just five months and decided to get involved because he says the issues, as well the constant review of allowable substances constantly under review, will impact all organic growers.
Melody Meyer, A-Dae Romero-Briones, Eric Schwartz, and Jennifer Tucker
“I realized these government decisions could really affect farmers and I wanted them to have a voice, “Schwartz said. . . Other board members are equally emphatic that growers must be involved in the process, and let the board know about concerns. “There have been times when I have changed my mind on an issue based on conversations with the organic community,” said board member A-Dae Romero-Briones, director of programs for Native Agriculture and Food Systems at First Nations Development Institute. The 15-member NOSB board meets twice a year and takes public comment at that time. While an advisory committee, the board does have some influence to affect NOP priorities. Schwartz said while the board meets twice a year, growers can give input anytime, whether individually or through local organizations advocating for organic issues.
And that engagement from the organic community is all the more important as organic continues to move into the mainstream on a variety of food and beverage items. One more indication is the number of “big boys” moving into the space. Anheuser-Busch, for example, is introducing an organic beer. Eel River Brewing Company’s Vivatson sees that as a good thing “as it will bring a whole new level of consumer awareness, which will help everyone in the organic beverage business.” And beyond.