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Western desert melon deal involves many growing areas

by Brian Gaylord | May 10, 2009
The Western desert melon deal starts in California's Imperial Valley, then moves to Yuma, AZ, before moving to Blythe, CA, and on to Phoenix.

After the Phoenix harvest  which starts in mid-June  the deal continues to Californias Bakersfield area in late June and the Mendota, CA, area around July 1 for what is referred to as the West Side melon deal. The majority of growers in the desert wrap up harvests there by July 1.

Mendota, CA-based Pappas & Co. grows cantaloupe and honeydew in the Imperial Valley and in Blythe. The companys sales manager, Rodney Van Bebber, told The Produce News May 6 that the companys harvest in the Imperial Valley would start around May 15 and run to around June 25.

"The crop looks good. The vines are healthy," Mr. Van Bebber said. Theres been warm weather, then cooling off.

There appears not to be a problem with mosaic disease, which can hit melons  especially cantaloupes and honeydews  the hardest, Mr. Van Bebber said.

There are some grower-shippers that typically start their melon harvest earlier in the Imperial Valley than Pappas & Co., such as Danna & Fisher LLC, E. Schaffner Packing Inc. and Five Crowns Marketing Inc.

Industrywide, melon acreage appears to be on a par with last years acreage in the Imperial Valley, Mr. Van Bebber said. Pappas & Co. increased its melon acreage in the Imperial Valley deal by 100 acres, all cantaloupes, he said.

No one wants to put more in, he said. We grow what we can sell.

Mr. Van Bebber said that the thought used to be that if 100 acres is good, 120 acres is better. But that is no longer the case. If sales cannot be made to retailers and foodservice, there is no value in growing additional acreage, he said.

Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are great promotions, Mr. Van Bebber said. July is a great month for retailer ads on melons.

Labor Day marks the last promotional push for melons at retail, though certainly melons compete with table grapes and other fruit at that time.

Retailers wont push hard [for melons] beyond [Labor Day], he said.

As is true with most farming operations, overall input costs continue to rise. The price of diesel fuel has come down as has the price of fertilizer, Mr. Van Bebber said, but that does not tell the full story. Grower-shippers may have thought the cheaper fuel would help, but the lagging economy has meant that truckers are less likely to have two-way freight from the West Coast to the East Coast and back. For some trucking companies, it is cheaper to park the trucks than run at a loss, Mr. Van Bebber said. The cost of cardboard has continued to climb. Mr. Van Bebber said that he hoped the price would stay the same this year, but consolidation among carton companies has led to price increases.

Labor costs continue to rise, including workers compensation costs in California. Water costs are another expensive input, though that effect is felt much more in the West Side melon deal, where water is harder to come secure.

We are proactive on water, Mr. Van Bebber said, adding that his company has its own wells and also has purchased water.

Barry Zwillinger, a partner in Firebaugh, CA-based Legend Produce LLC, told The Produce News May 6 that the company was scheduled to begin its melon harvest in the Imperial Valley around May 11 or 12. That harvest  which is cantaloupes only  would run through mid-June, he said.

Legend Produce has a cantaloupe and honeydew melon deal in Maricopa, AZ, that begins around June 6. The companys acreage for its Western desert melon deal is about the same as last year, Mr. Zwillinger said.

Weather patterns have been conducive to an excellent growing season for melons, Mr. Zwillinger said. This years early Memorial Day  May 25  posed problems for grower-shippers, who needed to give retailers prices around the third week of April yet could not guarantee supplies at that time. There will be some melons on ad with West Coast retailers, he said.

Athena melons grown on the East Coast prove to be significant competition. Beginning a decade ago, the Western desert melon crop has now lost 35 percent of its market to Athena melons grown on the East Coast. The harvest of Athena melons typically starts in May in Florida and moves north. The Athena is grown in various areas through July.

Theres lots of interest for cantaloupes [at retail], Mr. Zwillinger said. This will be an aggressive year for cantaloupes.