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Back to Organics : With this week’s furor over tainted fruit, specialty grocers are experiencing a run on chemical-free produce--and running short.

Times Staff Writer

Selling organically grown fruits and vegetables has never been a high-volume business--until this week.

In the Los Angeles downtown produce district, wholesalers who deal in organic produce have been besieged by stores scrambling for chemical-free produce.

“We usually get people who buy half a box of something,” said Dennis Bronson, co-owner of Mountain Wholesale Produce. “Now, they take a truckload a day. It’s been quite shocking.”

With bans of chemically treated apples and tainted Chilean grapes in the news, business is booming for growers, wholesalers and food stores. Heavy demand for almost anything organic has triggered shortages and overwhelmed the small and frail network that supplies the produce.

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“I’m trying not to answer the phone,” said Bronson, who has been caught off guard by a 100% jump in sales at his firm. “Carrots are out for the next week, and apples in the big sizes are gone. Tomatoes should be readily available but they are not, and things like melons are hard to find.”

The supply of such produce has always been relatively small. In California, only 30,000 acres--a tiny fraction of California’s total farmland--is devoted to organic fruits and vegetables, according to California Certified Organic Farmers, an association of about 400 growers.

Free of Synthetic Chemicals

To qualify as organic under California law, produce must be grown on farmland that has been free of synthetic chemicals for at least one year before planting.

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For shoppers, organic fruits and vegetables are harder to find--usually in specialty grocery stores--and cost up to 25% to 30% more than conventionally grown farm products. The price is higher, say organic farmers, because the lack of pesticides requires more labor to eradicate weeds and pests. Also, yields are usually lower without chemical fertilizers.

Organically grown products also may not be as large or as cosmetically appealing as the produce grown with chemicals and pesticides. “Our Red Delicious apples would be a little smaller and a little less red and not as shiny,” said Sandy Gooch, owner of the six-store Mrs. Gooch’s chain. “The Alar makes the apple larger and redder and more uniform,” she said of the chemical that has triggered bans of apple products in Los Angeles schools as well as nationwide.

But the lack of consistency has not turned off customers, said Gooch, who noted that sales of organically grown produce have shot up 20% in the past two weeks, and demand has grown for organic juices and sauces. And despite a rise in prices, customers are still loading up on broccoli, for instance, even though the price has hit $1.49 a pound, up from $1.19.

“The demand is there and the customers are not taking a backward step when they see the price,” said Ray Hachiya, who buys organic produce for Mrs. Gooch’s. “It’s amazing to me.”

Demand has soared in other cities, too. “Its very noticeable, said Michael Jordin, manager of the Real Food Co. store in San Francisco, which has seen sales of organic produce rise 15%. “People do have a panic reaction; hopefully we will be able to retain the extra customers.”

The large chains and supermarkets are now competing with the smaller specialty stores--the traditional purveyor of organic produce--for supplies. At Cal Organic Farms near Bakersfield, farmer Denny Duncan has had to turn new customers away empty-handed. “We’re definitely getting calls from markets that we have not dealt with before,” said Duncan, who added that he could easily double the 3,000 cartons of broccoli he ships each week if there were enough supply.

“Consumers have lost confidence when they walk through a produce section,” said Todd Linsky, a salesman for S & S Produce, a Los Angeles shipper of organic produce. “By providing them organics, we are giving them that confidence again,” he said.

“It’s crazy,” said Linsky, who has extended his workday by several hours to handle the load. “There is not enough product to support everybody’s need.”

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