A major fruit company has decided to convert 100 percent of its stone fruit trees to organic farming practices, part of the ongoing push to meet consumers’ insatiable demand for healthier food.

But Stemilt Growers Inc., a bit player in the stone fruit industry but one of the nation’s leading apple suppliers, isn’t waiting two years to capitalize on the switch. The company has created a new label – Artisan Naturals – to sell its naturally-farmed fruit, an effort to get a higher price for the fruit even if it can’t yet come with an “organic” sticker.

“It’s a fact that the organic market has exploded,” said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services for the Produce Marketing Association in Newark, Del. “Connecting your product to the consumers’ demands or preferences – that’s what this is all about. And it’s not a bad strategy.”

To be certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, growers must raise their crop free of bug killer or fertilizer for three years. Agricultural experts estimate the costs for growers at as much as 30 percent higher during the transition, and growers rarely get a higher return for the fruit during that time…

An estimated 3 percent of all grocery-store sales are organic products, but only about half of one percent of U.S. farmland is certified organic.

Demand is outpacing supply, and government policies don’t do enough to encourage farmers to increase their costs to raise organic crops, said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the nonprofit Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minn. The solution is to pay a premium during their three-year transition period.

“You need a label that says transition to organic, that would mean a farmer or producer has signed a contract with one of USDA’s certifiers,” Cummins said.

Full Story: http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2007/08/24/ap4052485.html