A healthy business

BY EMILY LECOZ

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Dawn Langford doesn't mind spending an extra dollar or so to buy organic rather than regular fruit juice. The money, she said, is well spent.

“I feel better drinking organic juices,” Langford said Wednesday as she shopped Hancock Health Food Store in Tupelo. “It's healthier for me, and I feel good about it, so it's worth the extra money.”

Langford is not alone.

America's organic food industry has grown at an average rate of 20 percent annually since the early 1990s. Last year alone, consumers spent $42.8 billion on natural and organic products, according to research published in The Natural Foods Merchandiser trade magazine.

Such products now appear in big grocery store chains as well as the traditional venues of small health-food markets. And increasingly more farms are turning organic across the United States – and in Mississippi – as demand for natural foods continues to rise.

Industry experts expect the upward trend to continue as more people turn toward a healthier lifestyle, for not only themselves but for the planet, as well.

What's organic?

The United States Department of Agriculture labels organic products as those made without synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics or growth hormones. Natural products – not covered under USDA's certified organics program – can still market themselves as free-range, hormone-free, and natural, however.

Collectively, these goods are seen by many as safer alternatives to mass-produced products using a host of chemicals.

“There haven't been extensive studies comparing nutrition in organic versus non-organic, but what is known is that organic farmers are not using pesticides and fertilizers that have been linked to cancer or environmental problems,” said Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.

Health foods going mainstream

One of the biggest indicators of organic viability is its appearance in conventional grocery stores like Kroger and Wal-Mart, said Jerry Dryer, president of dairy consulting agency J/D/G Consulting.

“Organic has evolved from the hippies of the 70s and the organic health foods stores,” Dryer said. “There aren't many conventional grocery stores you walk into today without seeing a full line of organics. It's mainstream.”

At Kroger, the “Nature's Market” section has been the supermarket chain's fastest growing business since 1999, said company spokesman Gary Rhodes. Rhodes said 1,200 of the chain's 2,500 stores – including the Tupelo location – now feature the successful organic products section.

Customers now have roughly 2,500 natural hygiene products, herbal supplements, and organic food items conveniently stocked in the same few isles – isles that Rhodes predicted would expand as the movement continued.

“This is not some fad,” he said. “It's been building and building for several years now, and customers expect to find organics and natural food items in our store. I fully expect this to continue growing.”

Small stores still thrive

The availability of organic and natural products in the big stores hasn't hurt the small health-foods shops, which serve a specialized niche by offering both goods and advice.

In Tupelo, the market has grown enough to spawn a second natural foods shop – Years To Your Health – which opened Oct. 20 to serve the downtown area.

Employees of both Years and Hancock spend time with their clients, learning each individual's need and recommending products to enhance their health.

“You can get every product at the major stores, but when you want tailor-made advice you go to the specialty shops,” said Don Barrett, manager at Hancock.

Trained as an herbalist and nutritional counselor, Barrett sometimes develops health programs for his customers based on their particular needs. In Northeast Mississippi, he said, those needs often result from a lifestyle of fast eating and fried food.

“We pay a high price for the convenience of our lifestyles – for eating fast-food or products chemically altered to have longer shelf lives,” he said. “That price is often heart disease, cancer and obesity.”

Barrett said he has seen an explosion in the health-food industry during the past five years and welcomes its appearance in Tupelo, where he said local consumers are joining the worldwide trend with gusto.

Langford became one of those consumers after her doctor said unbalanced sugar levels caused her lethargy. Now, she replaces cereal bars with energy bars and called the results amazing.

“I have so much more energy now, and after I eat one of these I'm full for hours,” Langford said. “It costs more than the granola bars you can get at the grocery store, but it's definitely worth it.”

That cost is likely to decrease as organics become more mainstream. In the past 10 years, their prices have already plummeted as increasingly more companies join the market and create a healthy competition, said the Organic Trade Association's Givens.

While Givens said the cost of natural and organic products now nears that of conventional items, dairy consulting agent Dryer said price hardly matters to some when it comes to their children.

“Consumers are buying it for the health of their children – that's the big issue,” Dryer said. “Nothing is too good for my kid,' is their attitude. And if they can swing $1,000 for stroller, they can swing an extra 50 cents for milk they perceive as being safer and healthier.”

On the farm

That attitude has sent a message to farmers, many of whom are converting their crops from chemically grown to certified organic.

The trend has appeared in Mississippi, where Lumberton farmers Tom and Sue Ann Dana have formed the Mississippi Organic Growers' Association in the south. Further north, Ron and Heather Brandon of Pontotoc are doing their part for the health-conscious community by producing free-range meats.

“We're raising our animals in the fresh air and sunshine without antibiotic and chemicals, where it's better for them and better for us in the long run,” said Heather, co-owner of Zion Farms, which produces grass-fed turkeys, chickens and beef cattle.

Brandon said business has skyrocketed in the past few years, boosted in part, she said, to the mad-cow scare that swept the country recently.

Others, like Michelle Schmidt, attribute the rising demand to taste. The Chickasaw County tomato grower said consumers shun the “cardboard flavor” of mass-produced fruits and vegetables and will spend more money on “a tomato that actually tastes like tomato.”

But Schmidt hasn't joined the organics movement, yet. She and her husband Les, co-owners of L'chelle Produce, use pesticides on their hydroponic tomatoes. But Schmidt said people prefer buying from her because she's local – and her tomatoes taste good.

“They don't taste like the ones in the stores,” said Schmidt, who sells her produce the Tupelo Farmer's Market. “Ours taste really, really good.”

Farmers and manufacturers who do turn organic must meet rigorous standards established by the USDA, which launched its National Organic Program in 2001. Only foods wearing the green-and-white “USDA Organic” have met these standards.

“Having farms become organic is not an instant process,” Givens said. “It takes at lease three years before you can build up the health of the soil on farms where chemicals where once used to grow food. But more and more people are doing it.”

Contact Emily LeCoz at 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com