Costco gets creative to meet appetite for organics

Janet I. Tu
The Seattle Times

At Costco’s shareholder meeting earlier this year, CEO Craig Jelinek touted the vast amounts of food the company sold last year, from 83 million rotisserie chickens to $6.1 billion worth of produce.

As for organics, one of the fastest-growing categories in food sales and one in which Costco has become a major player?

“We cannot get enough organics to stay in business day in and day out,” Jelinek told the gathered investors.

So to boost its supply, Costco is trying something new: It’s working with farmers to help them buy land and equipment to grow organics.

The effort is still in its infancy. So far, Costco is working with just one partner, loaning money to help San Diego-based Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce buy equipment and 1,200 acres of land in the Mexican state of Baja California.

But Costco is looking at expanding the initiative. The idea is to ensure a greater supply of organic foods at a time when demand is soaring but supply has not kept up.

While other retailers might have loan programs for suppliers to upgrade equipment or offer financial incentives such as advance payments or long-term contracts, helping farmers buy land to grow organics appears to be unusual in the industry.

The nascent program joins a list of other Costco food initiatives that try to ensure the warehouse giant can meet the voluminous demand of its customers.

The retailer, based outside Seattle, for instance, has a poultry plant in Alabama dedicated to raising chickens for the fresh meat and rotisserie chickens it sells.

It started working with a Mexican vendor two years ago to get wild shrimp from the Sea of Cortez, allowing the retailer to diversify from relying on shrimp caught in Thailand, where human trafficking and slave labor in the fishing industry are pervasive.

And in the last year, Costco bought cattle and is contracting with owners of organic fields in Nebraska to have ranchers there raise the livestock to ensure supply for its organic ground-beef program.

“A few years ago, Craig (Jelinek) came to me and said: ‘Fresh food — we need to have sustainable lines of supplies into the future,’” said Jeff Lyons, Costco’s senior vice president of fresh foods.

Behind each of the initiatives, Lyons said, are the questions: “What do we see down the road that could be a challenge in terms of supply? And what can we put in place today to grow that particular scarce resource?”

Organic food is one such scarce resource, its supply limited in part because the transition from conventional farming to organic farming takes several years and is costly. Virgin land that is ready to grow organics is scarce or prohibitively expensive.

Demand, meanwhile, has leapt with sales of organic food jumping from $11.13 billion in 2004 to $35.95 billion in 2014, according to the Organic Trade Association, which represents the supply chain from farmers to retailers.

“Demand is increasing. But we’re not seeing the same level of farmland,” said association spokeswoman Angela Jagiello.

While organic-food sales reached nearly 5 percent of total food sales last year, organic farmland makes up only about 1 percent of U.S. farm acreage.

“We’re not seeing the level of growth we need in domestic supply to meet demand,” Jagiello said. “It’s the No. 1 strategic issue facing the industry.”

So stretched is the supply chain that some organic packaged-food companies, such as Nature’s Path and Pacific Foods, have bought their own farms or are raising their own chickens, according to The Wall Street Journal. Restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, meanwhile, began providing financing to help farmers shift from conventional to organic food, the newspaper reported.

For Costco, the idea of loaning money to longtime supplier Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce (A&W for short) took shape when Lyons took a tour of A&W’s Baja operations.

The supplier had heard about 1,200 acres of land in San Quintin, Baja California, that seed company Seminis wanted to sell. The land had lain fallow for years, so it could be used immediately to grow organics, said Ernie Farley, one of A&W’s owners.

But money was an issue. A&W didn’t have all the cash on hand it would need to buy the land outright.

Costco ended up loaning A&W money to buy the land — neither company would say how much — and the deal is being completed. Going forward, Costco will have first right to everything that meets its requirements that comes off that land.

For the first time, conventional retailers such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Kroger bested natural-food retailers, including Whole Foods, in sales of organic foods, according to the Organic Trade Association.

And last year, after Costco said its sales of organic products exceeded $4 billion annually, one investment bank surmised the warehouse giant may have surpassed Whole Foods to become the nation’s largest organic grocer.

That Costco is working on increasing its supply of organic foods is good news to Letitia Chapman, who was shopping recently for organic fruits and vegetables at Costco in Seattle.

A few months ago, the sales rep from Seattle decided to start eating more organic food as part of a lifestyle change. While the longtime Costco shopper liked the organic produce she found, sometimes Costco simply doesn’t carry enough organics, she said.

“I tend to end up going to Whole Foods,” she said. “If Costco could get more, that would be awesome.”