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Organic avocados on sale at a locally owned supermarket were recently priced 20 cents lower than conventionally grown avocados - shattering commonly held consumer belief that organic produce is more expensive.

Organic fruits and vegetables have gradually decreased in price as more farmers have certified their fields organic to meet customer demand for crops raised without harmful chemicals.

"People might be surprised that prices of organic and conventional produce have gotten closer and closer together," said De Skikos, store manager at Andy's Produce in Sebastopol. "Years ago that was almost unheard of."

He estimates organic produce at his store ranges from 10 to 20 percent more than conventional, but notes that in the past, organic was often 50 percent higher.

For people who are closely watching their budget, it's increasingly possible to eat organic food by following a variety of shopping strategies, growing a portion of their own food, and cultivating a relationship with a local farmer.

"People have the impression that organic food is more expensive, but especially if you buy in season, you'll see the prices go down significantly, even with organic," said Suzi Grady, former Petaluma Bounty farm manager and member of its board.

"The reason small farmers charge more is because of economy of scale. For example, they don't have big tractors to harvest five acres of potato. They also don't have access to government subsidies. With commodity crops, the majority of growers get subsidies," she said.

Organic produce grown by small-scale farmers traditionally has cost more for a variety of reasons. Farmers who don't use chemical fertilizers often have less predictable yields, their produce may have shorter shelf life and there's more labor involved in tending and harvesting the organic crops.

"Conventional farming has killed off the soil ecology system, and what might be cheaper now, which was grown with pesticides and herbicides, will cost more in the future when the fields are tired out," said Grady, field manager at Sustainable Seed Company in Covelo.

She believes it's important for health and environmental reasons to eat organic produce and suggests that people try to grow some of the foods they eat most often and develop connections with local farmers.

"Be aware of what you spend a lot of money on and try to grow them," she said. "But I don't think people should feel guilty if they do buy a pineapple or papaya that came from far away. It was grown by a human being somewhere."

Mike Peterson, produce buyer for Oliver's Market in Cotati, said because more farmers are growing organically to meet demand, stores can offer competitive prices on organic fruits and vegetables.

He recommends customers look carefully at weekly ads to see what organic foods are on sale, and they might occasionally find the organic item is cheaper than the conventional one. He also recommends if you're buying organic to stick to what's in season for the best prices.

"Organic in general is going down in price, but I don't think there will be an equilibrium," he said.

Tara Smith, owner of Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma, which sells produce at a farm stand and through a weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, says organic produce isn't necessarily more costly to grow. But she said that government subsidies to large, conventional growers make it possible for them to offer lower prices at the supermarket.

In looking at the true cost of food, she believes consumers should consider the cost to their health, and notes that when organic fruits and vegetables are left on the plant longer to ripen, they have considerably higher nutritional benefits.

"The only way you can hurry food is to adulterate it in some way. You can't force grow without hurting the environment," she said. "Food can't be forced. The minute you force it you ruin it. The only way to force it is with chemicals. It needs time and no stress."

Baker Creek Seed Company manager Paul Wallace, who works in Petaluma and lives in Sebastopol, uses a variety of strategies so his family of four can eat "99 percent organic." They shop at four to five stores each week to find the best prices and plan their errands so they don't drive out of their way to reach them.

"We often find organic is cheaper," Wallace said. "And if you buy something locally produced and it's organic, it's for sure more nutrient-dense. We may spend a little more on food, but we don't spend on medical bills."

Janet Parmer is a Bay Area feature writer. She can be reached at jhparmer@comcast.net.

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