Organic, conventional price gap closing for produce

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.

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