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Tri-county companies ride health-foods boom

By   /   Wednesday, March 6th, 2013  /   Comments Off

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Producers of organic and natural foods in the Tri-Counties are seeing robust consumer demand despite higher production and retail costs for some of their products, a panel of speakers said at a breakfast meeting Wednesday.

The event was hosted by the Association for Corporate Growth  at the Westlake Village Inn.

Scott Deardorff, fourth-generation owner and partner at Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, said growth in the organic segment has been exponential and it now makes up about 30 percent of Deardorff’s annual production, with an expected increase to around 40 percent. He said sales of kale, which is being hailed as a new health superfood, are soaring. “We can’t keep it on the shelves.

We’re constantly re-evaluating our planting schedule and putting in as much kale as we possibly can,” he said.

He said Deardorff will soon offer a new variety of tomato that has been bred to enhance flavor.

Jim Lacey, founder and CEO of Westlake Village-based Crunchies Food Co., said the six-year-old maker of freeze-dried, natural fruits and vegetables has grown rapidly despite being launched during a crippling economic downturn. He said Crunchies has moved into the No. 1 position in its category by entering the specialty foods and mass grocery markets at the same time.

He said the freeze-dried fruits and vegetables retain 90 percent of their nutrients, compared to an average of 45 percent with air-dried produce.

Lacey disclosed that Crunchies has partnered with Warner Bros. Consumer Products to launch a new line of Crunchies for children this summer, with packaging that will feature Looney Tunes characters including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Taz. He said there are plans to expand into the chips and bars product lines, and Crunchies will introduce an organic line of four fruits and a vegetable this summer.

Kristine Ericksen, chief financial officer of Ventura-based thinkThin Products, said the brand is No. 1 in Southern California in the natural foods segment and No. 8 in the nation. She said company founder Lizanne Falsetto, a former supermodel, was ahead of the curve when she began experimenting with natural foods in her kitchen 15 years ago.

The high-protein bars with no refined sugar were gluten-free long before there was such a section in stores, she said, and consumer preferences have moved to where the company began. ThinkThin bars moved onto shelves at Target, Walmart and Walgreens last year and the company is working on new offerings that will be non-genetically modified and kosher, she said.

Jennifer Grossman, vice president of the Dole Nutrition Institute, said Westlake Village-based Dole Food Co. is the world’s largest provider of organic bananas and pineapples, but the institute promotes the health benefits of all fruits and vegetables, not just organic. That mandate comes from Dole chairman David Murdock, a passionate crusader for nutrition.

Grossman said Dole is not expanding its production of organic fruits and vegetables, but is doing more with natural foods and those with particular health benefits. She cited studies that found no difference in pesticide levels in organic and non-organic bananas and pineapples.

But if consumers believe they are eating healthier by buying organic, “any motivation to eat more fruits and vegetables I think is wonderful,” she said.

U.S. sales of organic foods are increasing faster than other produce, and reached $31.5 billion in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Deardorff said he thinks that the benefits of organic produce are overstated. Consumers might be surprised to learn that he uses pesticides on his organic produce, but they are organic pesticides, he said. While there are benefits to the environment, organic farming results in less production, higher labor costs and a three-year transition to organic soils, he said.

Ventura County has a thriving cluster of companies in the organic and natural foods space. Among others are Pacific Ridge Farms in Oxnard, and Ventura firms Boku International, producer of a nutritional whole food powder and protein bars, probiotic drink maker KeVita and aquaponic farmer Fish Bone Farms.

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