By Susan Sites, The Packer
Since he formed InterNatural Marketing in 1989, Chris Bell has witnessed the evolution of the organic industry. In the early days, no buyers in the U.S. really understood what organic meant. Unlike the European organic market, the organic movement in the U.S. has been consumer-driven. Organic was once the ugly stepchild of the US produce industry, but has blossomed into a viable market, thanks to consumer demand. Bell says, “Consumers have forced large companies into changing how they feel about organics. Companies are starting to see the benefits of organic, and they are investing in developing the category.”
A transplant from England, Bell started his Florida-based business selling organic produce internationally. In 1992, he was forced to rethink his business model after new EU laws went into effect in Europe. The change in laws prohibited many organic products to be imported without long established certifications grandfathered into regulations. Bell said, “As a former partner in a successful health food store in West Palm Beach, I had experience and contacts in the industry. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time, so I have a passion for fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. I knew I wanted to be involved in organic produce moving forward.” In 1992, he persuaded his first major U.S. customer, Publix, to start carrying organics. At the time, Bell was their only organic supplier. Bell is proud of the company’s ability to realize and develop a U.S. market. “It was touch and go for a few years while we made the transition,” he says.
Our Mission is to Help Farmers
Twenty-five years later, InterNatural Marketing represents over 30 growers in the U.S. and in Canada. Some of Bell’s growing partners include Craig Potato, The Family Garden, McClellan Organics and Berry Farms. The company’s network of growers are from Quebec, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida .
With the intent of creating greater opportunities for organics within the mainstream marketplace, InterNatural Marketing helps farmers (from farmers with as little as 30 acres to farmers who have hundreds of acres) get their organic products to market. The company acts as a one-stop source and consultancy solution for farmers. Bell says, “We find homes for everything our farmers grow. We sometimes move product that is not yet certified but in the process of being certified. A farmer may be converting his land over to organic, but he needs help moving his conventional but transitioning to organic produce.” In addition to working with farmers, InterNatural helps companies find the products they need for sale or manufacture by individual order or in long term contracts. Besides attending industry shows, InterNatural Marketing relies mostly on word of mouth to grow its pool of farmers and buyers.
Bell’s team includes his wife Dina and Dee Dee Digby, formerly of Destiny Organics. Dina specializes in urban farming and their buy local initiative, sectors that Bell believes will expand rapidly in the future. Digby joined the team last year and has been a real asset with her background as a distributor and her previous commitment to developing organic farms and the Farm to School Program.
As Bell looks towards the next 25 years, he hopes to stay ahead of the organic wave by sticking to his main goal: focus on the farmers’ needs and ways to help them. Another objective is to continue shortening the distance between the organic farmer and the end user. “We work on logistics to get produce to the consumer quickly. We want to keep product as close to home and as fresh as possible,” says Bell.