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The first-ever U.S. watermelon promotion in Japan will take place this August.

Gordon Hunt, director of marketing for the Orlando, FL-based National Watermelon Promotion Board, arranged the promotion. Mr. Hunt is fluent in Japanese and long ago, in another position, helped the Florida Department of Citrus open the Japanese market to Florida citrus.

As reported in The Produce News in April, Mr. Hunt spent the last full week of March in Japan with NWPB shipper-members Brent Harrison and Dan Van Groningen. The trio worked then to open the Japanese market for North American watermelons. Mr. Van Groningen is the vice president of Van Groningen & Sons Inc., based in Manteca, CA. Mr. Harrison is president of Al Harrison Produce Co. Distributors Inc., based in Nogales, AZ.

Van Groningen & Sons is a vendor for Walmart in Bentonville, AR, and it is using that status to export to Japan this summer. The Japanese customer is Seiyu, which is a retail chain owned by Walmart that has stores throughout Japan. Initially, 20 Seiyu stores will promote U.S. watermelons, Mr. Hunt told The Produce News May 18.

"We approached this in a systematic way, working with Walmart and Seiyu. We went over in March, toured the market, saw stores and met with the people who do buying for Seiyu." An agreement on timing of the promotion was struck, and the first shipment will leave the United States in late July or early August. Since Manteca is near San Francisco Bay, Mr. Hunt reckoned that will probably be the port used by Van Groningen for the exports.

Mr. Hunt said that Japanese buyers "want consistent Brix levels [and] for all the product to be the same." All the watermelons exported to Japan will be packed by hand. "This is the first shipment, so it will be given special care."

The board will be sending an American watermelon queen to participate in the promotion, which will be focused on the Tokyo-Osaka area.

Mr. Hunt added that the Japanese liked the health-positive citrulline research provided by the watermelon promotion board. "They have citrulline chewing gum, but they didn't know citrulline came from watermelon."