Who’s your organic demographic?

Tia Loftsgard, executive director of the Canadian Organic Trade Association. Photo: Laura Rance

By Laura Rance
OrganicBiz editor

If asked to describe the ‘typical’ organic consumer, many would think of a West Coast hippie crunching on granola.

Well, think again.

It turns out the stereotypical organic customer is more likely to live in Alberta than British Columbia, and is a university educated 30-something male with a family, new data from the Canadian Organic Trade Association (COTA) shows.

Alberta leads the pack in Canada for the percentage of consumers that regularly buy organic products, according to the annual Ipsos consumer survey commissioned by COTA. This year’s survey found 74 per cent of Alberta consumers shop for organic products weekly, ahead of British Columbia at 69 per cent.

This doesn’t mean these shoppers only buy organic, but it does mean that they are regularly putting some organic products into their grocery cart.

Data like this sheds new light on a sector that has struggled to be taken seriously both by policy makers and the rest of agriculture. It also helps dispel some of the mythology around organics, like the notion that it only appeals to a certain types of customers, such as those who are wealthy.

COTA has started commissioning annual surveys to better understand the fundamentals driving growth in the sector, which is now worth $5.4 billion to the Canadian economy.

Values are what are driving these purchases. – Tia Loftsgard

Across the nation, 66 per cent of consumers are buying organic products on a weekly basis — and that proportion is rising. The survey tracked a 10 per cent gain — from 56 to 66 per cent — between 2016 and 2017.

“Across the board organics are going up,” Tia Loftsgard, COTA executive director told the Alberta Organic annual conference Feb. 9. “In every single category, people are buying more.”

Jim Wasiuta (left) and his son Kyle of Thorhild, Alta. study the agenda at the Organic Agriculture conference in Red Deer Feb. 9 deciding which sessions to attend. Jim switched the family farm to organic nine years ago because he disliked spraying. Kyle plans to continue. Photo: Laura Rance

Millennials, people born between the late 1970s and early 2000s, dominate organic consumption at 83 per cent. This age group is key because pundits predict they will soon surpass Baby Boomers, 56 per cent of which currently buy organic.

Whereas “value for money” is cited as key factor driving people’s decision to buy organic, cost is also often cited as a key barrier.

However, Loftsgard said the often-used criticism that organics are only affordable for the rich doesn’t appear to hold up. The latest survey shows that 70 per cent of households with income over $100,000 buys organic. For households with income of less than $40,000, that number drops — but only to 64 per cent.

“Values are what are driving these purchases,” she said, noting one of the most popular organic food categories is baby food, which now accounts for 60 per cent of total baby food sales.

Grocery stores and discounters account for 53 per cent of sales. Health food stores and farmer direct sales are suffering as grocery retailers allocate more shelf-space to the sector.

Of course, this is encouraging news for Canada’s estimated 4,000 certified organic growers, about 400 of which attended the Alberta conference to learn the latest in trends, markets and the how-to of organic production.

In 2006, organic farmers made up 1.7 per cent of the Canadian farming population. In 2017, that level had risen to 2.2 per cent.

Loftsgard said the organic sector is in fact attracting new farmers to the agriculture. Growers tend to be younger, university educated and are less likely to have come from a farming background.

The Canadian story is part of a global phenomenon. Research released this week by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture at an event in Nuremburg, Germany, shows organic markets are showing double-digit growth in most of the major markets, including the U.S., France, Germany and China.