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The National Watermelon Promotion Board has planted the seeds for U.S. watermelons to be sold by Japanese retailers.

Gordon Hunt, director of marketing for the board, Maggie Bailey, the 2009 national watermelon queen, and Eleanor Bullock, the National Watermelon Association's queen promotion coordinator, traveled to Japan in mid-August and promoted U.S.-grown watermelon for three days in three different Seiyu Ltd. stores in Tokyo. Seiyu is one of Japan's larger retailers. Mr. Hunt told The Produce News that he believed the board's in-store promotion, which kicked off two weeks of promotions in Seiyu stores across Japan, was the country's first ever for U.S. watermelon -- and possibly for watermelon in general.

"There have never been any promotions of watermelon per se in Japan," he said. "They just don't promote it, and that's the same thing in most places in the world. Watermelon is taken for granted ... it's been there forever. This is the first time they've ever had a promotion where they've said 'here is U.S.- grown watermelon from California.' "

As part of the promotion, the organization gave out watermelon recipe brochures translated into Japanese and slices of watermelon wrapped in plastic with the board's "Heart Healthy" logo stickers on them.

"We selected [recipes] that we thought would work best in Japan," he said. "The fact that we had recipes at all was a godsend to the Seiyu guys; they didn't know you could do anything with watermelon. [Japan is] very similar to everywhere else in the world [in that] you just cut it and eat it."

Mr. Hunt was quite pleased with the promotion's results.

"As far as I'm concerned, it could not have gone better," he said proudly. "Both the queen and Eleanor were real troopers. The promotions started at 10 in the morning and ended at five, and they were on their feet the entire time. They did a great job for us."

Mr. Hunt said that the promotion came as a direct result of a March trip to Japan that he took with two board members, Brent Harrison of Al Harrison Co. and Dan Van Gronigen of Van Groningen & Sons Inc.

The trio met with officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Trade Office at the U.S. Embassy to seek assistance in getting U.S.-grown watermelon into the Japanese market. During the trip, Mr. Hunt said they toured the produce markets and spoke with representatives of companies, including Seiyu, which is a subsidiary of Walmart.

Van Gronigen & Sons is a Walmart vendor, and Mr. Hunt said that unbeknownst to Mr. Van Gronigen, some of his firm's product had actually ended up in Seiyu a couple of years before on "a spot buy."

Mr. Hunt, who is fluent in Japanese, used his experience and knowledge of the Japanese produce industry, garnered from his many visits to the country when he was director of international marketing at the Florida Department of Citrus, to help get the ball rolling.

"It is such a different culture," he said. "So much is familiar, but there's just enough that is not, particularly when you are working on jetlag."

He continued, "The difference between Japan and other countries where U.S. watermelon has gone is that we knew it was legal to put U.S. watermelon in [Japan], but we couldn't find anyone who could do it on a regular basis," Mr. Hunt said. "There was back and forth for several months after [our trip] between Dan [Van Gronigen] and the Seiyu buyers as to what they might take and test. Everyone [at Seiyu] was also really nervous if it was going to be really good-quality product."

He noted that the Japanese have high standards for external and internal quality for watermelon and want product with high Brix levels.

Seiyu purchased six container loads of seedless watermelons from Van Gronigen & Sons, packed in boxes with Van Gronigen's "Yosemite" label, Mr. Hunt said, adding that the retailer's buyer told him that for the last seven or eight years, he had been trying to find U.S. watermelon that was suitable to bring to Japan on a regular basis.

The buyer "was very, very pleased to see that [U.S. growers] are capable shipping [product] that is high quality and the packaging is good," Mr. Hunt said.

He noted that Seiyu displayed the U.S. watermelon next to domestic Japanese watermelon, and the former was selling for approximately $16 a melon, while the latter was selling for $23.

The board plans to build upon its success and is planning to return to Japan early next year, Mr. Hunt said.

"We talked very closely with the ATO's office, and we're going to be looking at taking part in a farmer-to-farmer program that the two governments run," Mr. Hunt said. "We've told them that we'd be happy to help them, and Van Gronigen & Sons said they'd love to have a Japanese farmer work with them."

He added, "One of the things we've stressed with the ATO, and Seiyu as well, is that we're happy to work with Japanese growers. As far as we're concerned, watermelon is watermelon anywhere in the world. If there is a way we can supply product, we're happy to do that. We'd even consider growing for them. Dan [Van Gronigen] said that if there are varieties they wanted grown for them specially, he's happy to do that."