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West Side melon deal looks for rebound to 20 million cartons

by Brian Gaylord | June 10, 2010
Last year's West Side melon deal in California came in at 19.3 million 40- pound cartons, a slight decline from 2008 totals.

Jerry Munson, manager of the Cantaloupe Advisory Board, said that the board anticipates 20 million 40-pound cartons in 2010.

In 2009, West Side growers were short of product toward the end of the year. Most crop is in by mid-September. The final total ratchets upwards of the projection as the harvest continues to Oct. 1 or later.

"Toward the end of the season [in 2009,] we didn’t get late production," Mr. Munson said. “The season didn’t last long, but they had been getting a good crop.”

The West Side deal covers Bakersfield , CA, and points north but not the Imperial Valley. The melon deal typically starts in Kern and Kings counties in early July. In addition to those counties, Fresno, Merced and Stanislaus counties make up the West Side melon deal. Fresno County accounts for most of the West Side deal’s volume.

Typically, the West Side deal comes in between 20 and 22 million cartons. This year, “Growers planted on time, no one seemed to be far behind,” Mr. Munson said. “There’s been some problem with cool weather. The crop will be a little late.”

Mr. Munson said that he does not foresee a shortage of water to be a problem for this year’s West Side crop.

“We [the Cantaloupe Advisory Board] always budget for 20 million cartons,” Mr. Munson told The Produce News in late May, putting the board’s budget for 2010 at nearly $260,000.

Five hundred cartons of melons per acre is a standard baseline. The board holds its annual meeting in mid-April, at which time it sets its budget for the year.

As of nearly a decade ago, the board no longer is involved with marketing, but instead conducts grade standards and surveillance. Its surveillance program involves trying to stop the theft of cantaloupes.

A sizable proportion of the board expenditures in 2009 were earmarked for surveillance of cantaloupe theft. This year the board has earmarked $138,700 for surveillance, a reduction from last year’s earmark of $163,000.

Thieves steal the cantaloupes and sell them well below market prices to operations that will sell them to the public. These stolen cantaloupes lack the grade stamp and date stamp on the box that the county applies, making it risky business to sell the stolen wares. Grade stamps signify that a product is good for consumption and also serve a significant purpose in traceback capabilities.

Theft prevention is important around Bakersfield, where the season starts, Mr. Munson said.

In 2009, the board raised its assessment from 1 cent per carton to 1.2 cents per carton. That 1.2 cents rate is holding steady for 2010, Mr. Munson said.

Beginning in 2009, the board continues to fund ongoing research with Trevor Suslow at the University of California-Davis with two studies: One study is to try to demonstrate that cantaloupes can’t absorb harmful elements from irrigation water and the other study is to try to find expedient ways to detect pathogens in cantaloupe fields.

Last year, both the Cantaloupe Advisory Board and the Melon Research Board received a report of Dr. Suslow’s findings. The Melon Research Board’s concerns extend beyond cantaloupes to include honeydews and mixed melons.

The early returns on Dr. Suslow’s research from last year are encouraging: Under experimental conditions, transport of internalized bacteria — avirulent E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and surrogate bacteria — within the melon vine was determined to be highly restricted.

The report further stated that in California “irrigation source water for melon production is highly unlikely to have levels of pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella present at levels that come close to even the lowest inoculation dose applied” and that “root uptake and systemic movement to fruit seems an implausible event.”

The report also concluded that it appears that systemic internalization of bacteria from the soil “is not a high-risk concern.”

There have been no recent updates from Dr. Suslow’s ongoing research, Mr. Munson said.

(For more on West side melons, see the June 14, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)