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Less outside competition to benefit desert melon deal

by Brian Gaylord | May 09, 2010
The Western desert melon deal starts in California's Imperial Valley before moving to Yuma, AZ, followed by Blythe, CA, and then on to Phoenix.

After the Phoenix harvest -- which starts in mid-June -- the deal continues to the Bakersfield, CA, area in late June and then 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.

"We're the earliest guy out of the shoot," said Daren Van Dyke, sales manager for Brawley, CA-based Five Crowns Marketing Inc, who said that his company has one of the larger mixed melon deals in the lower desert.

"We do nine varieties of melons," Mr. Van Dyke said, including conventional and organic cantaloupes and honeydews.

Last year, Yuma's melon volume "came on top of us," Mr. Van Dyke said. This year, both central Arizona and Yuma apparently will face delays. Phoenix usually has a late-May start for its melon harvest but looks to be a good 10 days late this year. As a result, demand should increase for Five Crowns products, he said.

Athena melons grown on the East Coast generally prove to be significant competition for the Western melon deal. The Athena melon harvest typically starts in May in Florida and moves north, growing in various areas through July. But this year, reductions in Florida's Athena melon crop as a result of freezes bodes well for the growers in the western desert deal.

Offshore melon deals in areas such as Costa Rica and Guatemala are winding down, to the benefit of western desert growers.

Five Crowns should begin to see decent volume in its melon harvest around mid-May.

"Quality looks outstanding and the yields look good," Mr. Van Dyke said. "The crop is probably one size smaller because of cold weather. We're looking at a good, very promotable crop."

Mendota, CA-based Pappas & Co. grows cantaloupe and honeydew in the Imperial Valley and in Blythe, CA. Pappas & Co. Sales Manager Rodney Van Bebber told The Produce News May 4 that the company's harvest in Imperial Valley would start around May 15.

Pappas has increased its cantaloupe acreage by 100 acres over last year, Mr. Van Bebber said. Added to its 800 acres of cantaloupe is another 50 acres of honeydews, he noted.

"The crop looks pretty good, but there were some gaps in spring plantings," Mr. Van Bebber said. "You plant and it rains. There were some hits and misses."

Currently, there are no disease problems, Mr. Van Bebber said. "The size and production should be OK," he continued. "There's been no extreme warm weather. There should be decent supplies by May 24." Melon growers in Yuma Valley and Phoenix also faced rains during their April planting season, Mr. Van Bebber said.

"The offshore melon deal is ending early, so that's good," he said. Additionally, the melon deal in Mexico is not very big, which is another plus for Pappas and its western desert melon competitors.

Mr. Van Bebber said that he expects Pappas to have fewer jumbo melons this year.

"It's a decent start and there's good demand," Mr. Van Bebber said. "Interest [from customers] is higher."

Cherries are late and table grapes are late, so maybe retailers will promote melons more, Mr. Van Bebber said.

One looming threat to the western desert melon deal is that transportation "will be tighter" this year, Mr. Van Bebber said.

Steve Smith, co-owner of Turlock, CA-based Turlock Fruit Co. Inc., told The Produce News May 4 that the company would market heirloom-style cantaloupes and Hami melons from the Imperial Valley. Hami melons are a Chinese melon variety and is "the most popular melon in China," he said.

Turlock Fruit is slated to start harvesting melons in mid-May, and melons for Memorial Day promotions are on Turlock's radar, Mr. Smith said. The company grows nearly a dozen varieties of melons but does not have honeydews in the desert.

"We market honeydews out of Mexico starting around the same time," Mr. Smith said. Those honeydews load out in Arizona in Nogales and Yuma. Turlock Fruit markets melons throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Kevin Beno, owner of Visalia, CA-based Fresh Buyers Inspection, told The Produce News May 5 that no one is ever certain how cantaloupes are doing until the first ones are in the box. Mr. Beno provides personalized inspection services for the California and Arizona growing regions.

"Right now, the weather has been on the cooler side," Mr. Beno said, adding that the western desert melon harvest may be a few days behind as a result. "Mild temperatures make [melons] grow at an even pace."