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A Growing Market

As demand grows, farmers and distributors are going organic.

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When the National Academy of Sciences reported in the last year that children's health may suffer more than adults' from the pesticides they routinely swallow with their fruits and vegetables, Bob Scaman's business got a healthy shot in the arm. Scaman is the 26-year-old president and founder of Goodness Greenness, Chicago's major organic produce broker. "The health food customer has always wanted organic produce," he says. "But when reports like that one come out, you get a new group of mainstream families shopping for this stuff." And that means conventional grocery stores goose their supply of organic produce. He's not out tipping over pesticide trucks, but Scaman says he counts on "each new food scare to put our produce on more people's lists."

It's now on quite a few. The son of two wholesalers of conventional produce, Scaman started Goodness Greenness two and a half years ago, and it's now a $10 million-a-year business. "That's big for an organic company, but for conventional produce it's nothing," he says.

Scaman brokers organic produce to natural foods stores and some mainstream grocery chains throughout the midwest, getting the goods from farmers all over the continent. "Organic produce has gotten to the level of conventional," he says. "We go where the product is now. In the summer we buy locally if we can, but in the winter we go to Washington for apples, Florida for cucumbers and tomatoes, and California for vegetables."

The demand for organic produce has grown steadily for a decade, but it's still tiny. Each year only 1 or 2 percent of people who respond to the Food Marketing Institute's exhaustive surveys say that they're trying to eat more organic produce. Food scares may spark quick upticks, but organics' better taste is the main reason for the gradual market expansion, Scaman says. Cooks tired of the food-science monsters that are the perfect color, shape, and size but duds on taste frequently go organic to get the untweaked flavor of naturally grown fruits and vegetables.

Scaman says the organic farm community in Wisconsin is way ahead of the one in Illinois, largely because of the leadership of a 20-year-old organic dairy co-op that got the ball rolling up there. But everything is relative; according to Dave Engel of the Wisconsin chapter of the Organic Crop Improvement Association, just one dairy farm per thousand is organic. Engel, whose farm is part of a co-op that sells to Chicago-area stores via Goodness Greenness, says consumer demand is so good these days that both the egg and dairy groups will double their co-op membership within the next year. "Farmers are definitely turning because of the demand," Engel says. "A lot of them have been sitting on the fence until they could see if people really wanted these things. Now they see it's a good way to go."

Going organic is a process that takes at least three years, because the remnants of chemical farming have to be massaged out of the soil. Scaman says the transition itself sometimes deters farmers. "For three years their products can't compete with conventionally grown produce, but they can't get organic prices until they're certified," he says. "So they have to invest long-term." And funds for the switch aren't exactly pouring out of banks--which as we know aren't very friendly to farmers of any kind anymore.

On top of that, organic produce farmers in the midwest are up against their counterparts nationwide who may be using more advanced technology and working in regions with better climates. Milk can't be shipped very far, which gives Wisconsin's dairy co-op a shot at a captive market. But fruit and vegetable growers here have a far shorter season than organic farmers in warm places. Kimberely Rector co-owns Angelic Organics, a 22-acre organic spread in Caledonia, near Rockford. "We're only a priority for Chicago stores if we can get it to them at California prices," she says, "which we usually can't."

Scaman says the coming of Fresh Fields and Whole Foods--as well as increased demand for organics at stores like Treasure Island--may demonstrate that there is a pipeline for organic produce, which should encourage more local farmers to get into the market. Already, he says, a few local organic farmers have made enough money to afford to buy sophisticated equipment that puts them more nearly on par with their competitors out west. "But you're talking about small farms--10 to 30 acres, as opposed to 200 to 600 acres for a conventional farm," he says. "There's only so much they can do for now."

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