Organic Produce Businesses Start to Grow
SEATTLE Most of Ronny Bell's friends have always been farmers, but tilling the earth was not for this New York transplant. Instead, Bell started an organic produce delivery business that blended healthy eating with convenience.
"People are busy, yet they want to try to take ownership of their health," Bell said at the small warehouse in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood where he operates Pioneer Organics.
Since founding the company in 1997, Bell has seen his customer list lengthen from six to more than 4,000 clients in the Puget Sound region and more recently in Portland, Ore. It's a testament to the growing number of people who seek organic produce and natural foods, but wish to avoid lottery-style shopping trips for quality goods.
Despite the failure of mainstream grocery-delivery services, more and more companies like Bell's are successfully operating around the country, including in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
When John Zechiel and his wife, Lisa, started Washington's Green Grocer in Washington, D.C., 11 years ago, incorporating a full box of organic groceries in their delivery service was almost impossible, partly because of lack of product.
Now Zechiel works with about 32 local farmers, and since adding organic produce to his selections, he said about 60 percent of his customers have opted for the natural choice.
"We may move to 100 percent organic as demand increases," said Zechiel, whose business serves roughly 500 customers.
There were about 557,000 acres of organic cropland in production in the United States in 1994, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Acreage had grown to 1.3 million by 2001, the latest year for which figures are available.
At Pioneer Organics, Bell works with dozens of organic farms throughout the Northwest, California and Mexico to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables, like Gala apples, blood oranges, Hass avocados, gingerroot and mangoes. Customers choose from a selection of eight different produce boxes, and use the company's Web site to modify orders to suit their tastes.
Sales of organic foods grew more than 20 percent to $10.4 billion in 2003, with an annual average growth rate of 18 percent forecast for 2004-2008, according to a trade survey conducted by Nutrition Business Journal of San Diego.
Both Zechiel and Bell credit increasing demand to spreading awareness of health hazards and environmental risks associated with pesticides and other chemicals.
Customers like Liz Addis agree. She said she's always "canned everything and made her own bread," but her personal interest in organic produce didn't peak until three years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Pesticides are pretty insidious in our environment, pretty damn hard to get away from," said 52-year-old Addis, a massage therapist in Vancouver, Wash., who learned of Pioneer Organics through a client.
In addition to the health benefits, Addis appreciates the company's support for the local economy.
"Part of making it a better planet is coming back to your community," Addis said, later adding, "I don't have the time or the desire to garden. I certainly appreciate those who do."
Health and convenience is a must for Teresa Wiant.
When she and her family moved from Seattle to the affluent suburb of Mercer Island, she wanted to avoid chemically treated produce, but found the local grocers' organic food selection unattractive and overpriced.
Now the 39-year-old mother of two young boys has a box delivered to her home each week for about $30, roughly what she would pay at the store.
"It's just that it's so much more convenient," said Wiant, who works full time as an attorney. "When I leave work, I just want to get home and be with my boys. I don't want to be out shopping."
Source: Associated Press