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Organic food producers to get boost from Walmart

BY DAVID ZOELLERdzoeller@paducahsun.com

Walmart's recent announcement it will offer organic food at discount prices could help Kentucky producers and businesses marketing non-traditionally grown crops, state agricultural officials and economists suggest.

The nation's largest retailer and grocer will offer a variety of Wild Oats brand groceries. While Walmart is emphasizing price with its announcement, the move will increase awareness about the organic products in general, according to Adam Watson, organic certification program manager for Kentucky's Department of Agriculture.

"Any time a national or large regional chain starts marketing a particular product, it brings it to a larger audience," Watson said. "For years, (organic) was more on the fringe."

Tim Woods, extension professor in the department of agricultural economics at the University of Kentucky, agrees the move by Walmart can bring higher demand for organic products. Kentucky as a whole is not a large producer of organic crops due to challenges with humidity, insects and crop diseases, Woods said.

"We have a handful of producers in Kentucky. It's not a big market ... but it's a growing market," Woods said.

"There are a lot of great niche markets outside of Walmart that are really attractive," he said. People who are looking to buy organic are less price sensitive and are "super loyal customers."

Organic products interest a wide range of customers.

"It's everybody. It runs the gamut from parents with small children who want to avoid pesticides to people more concerned with sustainable production methods," according to Watson. "It's not a single socio-economic class. There is no one single organic customer you can market to."

The word organic is more than an adjective, Watson noted. To claim a product as organic there are federal regulations to be met, administered by an accredited certification program like the one he oversees for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

"It has to do with marketing at any level. The word organic is actually a label claim. When you make that claim, you have to be certified," Watson said.

That certification process includes keeping detailed records and allowing inspections, among other criteria. Small producers who sell less than $5,000 worth of product are exempt from the required certification, Watson said.

Andy Carloss always dreamed of opening a Whole Foods-type business in his native Paducah that would feature organic products in a corner market environment. Even after moving to Boston several years ago to work for a high-tech company, the idea was always on his mind.

"I couldn't wait to get out of Paducah, and when I got out (and went to Boston) I couldn't wait to get back to Paducah," Carloss said. When he returned, he opened the business he had dreamed about, Midtown Market on Broadway, about two years ago.

The grocery carries a wide variety of certified organic products as well as locally grown food. All of the items are clearly labeled, Carloss said. Customers are interested in organic products for a variety of reasons, be it dietary needs or other health-related concerns, he said.

"People are becoming very well-educated (about organic food). For a lot of people, it's a way of life."

Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.

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