When COVID-19 hit, F&B Farms and Nursery in Woodburn, Oregon, saw sales drop dramatically within the first two weeks. That’s when the annual and organic vegetable and herb grower decided to slow down annual production and ramp up edible plants. “I decided we’re going to plant every vegetable that we have on site,” says co-owner Leigh Geshwill. “Whatever we’ve got to seed and if we can get more, we’re going to plant them. I kind of figured having seen the first week or two in the grocery stores that food production was going to be top-of-mind for people.”
Even so, Geshwill says the greenhouse couldn’t keep up with demand. “We had people calling us from states we don’t normally ship to looking for product. So it was definitely a crazy year,” she says.
F&B Farms and Nursery is a 90 to 95% wholesale operation, supplying ornamental and edible plants to independent garden centers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In 2016, the greenhouse decided to transition all of its edible plants to organic due in large part to customer demand, Geshwill says.
The other issues were space, along with the time and the effort it took to do two sets of production. “I just wanted to be able to run the entire thing organically and have all my space certified and not worry about segregating or how it was treated,” Geshwill says. “I could just have more control over the whole process if it was all organic.”
And the organic trend isn’t one that’s likely to go away soon. Looking at the increase of not just organic produce, but organic products on store shelves, Geshwill sees a lot of opportunity.
“And as we get more savvy on production and growing things organically, that’s just going to continue to grow,” she says. “So I think that if you haven’t made it part of your plan, there’s no time like now. And tie it into health and wellness for people. I think that’s a great plant benefit and it’s a great marketing tool.”
We talked to Geshwill about the demand for organic edibles and where she sees the market heading.
Produce Grower: Do you think this boom in edibles will last after the COVID-19 crisis?
Leigh Geshwill: I think the edibles have been steadily growing anyway, so I think it will continue. And the reason I think that the organic market is a driver, but it’s also just edibles in general. I think consumers want to be more in charge of their health and their nutrition and what they’re eating. That ties into the local food movement. They want to know what it is and where it came from. And so I think growing your own food, I mean, you clearly know where it came from and what happened to it and how it was taken care of. So I think that’s just a continuing trend that people just really feel empowered to be in charge of their own health and wellness.
PG: Outside of the pandemic, what are some other factors driving the organic edible market?
LG: Another thing I think that helps now, especially versus even four or five years ago is just the availability of products. It used to be that you could get some things organic, but it wasn’t a very wide selection. And each year we just see that selection of seed availability and different types of vegetables and herbs really keeps expanding. So that helps sort of drive the sales that you can get. You can get all that variety that people are craving.
PG: What are some of the most popular varieties at the independent garden centers in your area?
LG: I think in a lot of places it’s heirloom tomatoes. In the Northwest, we have a fairly large Hispanic population and also we have some other ethnic groups like Russians that tend to like a lot of the specialty peppers. So, we see that and then of course lettuce, greens and basil and cilantro are the top two herbs. Lots of summer squash, a little bit of eggplant, but generally, we have a fairly sophisticated market. They’ll still buy some Early Girl and Better Boy type tomatoes, but people really want something that’s kind of unique and unusual. So they want it in their plants and they want it in their vegetables.
PG: Is there anything IGCs can provide their customers to help make them successful with an organic edible garden?
LG: Well, I think in our area, most of them do a really, really good job. In general, I think it’s just really educating consumers on the shift in mindset. Growing organically in my mind requires a little bit more planning and thoughtfulness about the whole network. When you grow conventionally, you have a problem and you go solve it with whatever chemical or fertilizer or whatever you need to do. When you do it organically, you have to think about: Have you amended your soil? Do you have a really rich microcosm going on? How are you going to deal with nutrition? Because you’re not going to throw some fertilizer on it. You’ve got to think about how you’re going to maintain nutrition throughout the growing season.
And so I think that it just requires a different kind of mindset or a sort of paradigm shift for how you grow. I think if people haven’t grown organically before that it may just take them maybe a really good seminar. It would help people to sort of plan ahead and then that would make them more successful.
PG: What advice would you give to garden center owners and retailers looking to find a good organic greenhouse partner?
LG: Well, the one thing I would say is there is so much vegetable demand in general. I do notice that some of our IGCs, we’ll do some pre-booking — not their entire sales volume, but maybe 50% of their sales volume. And I think that’s a really good idea just because seed supply is not robust and the availability is not robust. The days of being able to order anything off spec are gone. If you have some need, you need to share that with the grower now. So that if you’re thinking, “My vegetable sales are going to go up 50% next year,” that would be good to tell your grower so we can accommodate that and you’re not struggling looking for product.
That’s mostly what I see is product availability and knowing that you’re going to have something, at least some base level of product to have on your shelf and not be subject to, ‘Oh, I can’t get beans for three weeks.’