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Watermelon season in full swing for Coastal Growers LLC

by Joel Gebet | July 12, 2010
Coastal Growers LLC is preparing for its first watermelon harvest of the 2010 season, and Will Hales could not be more proud.

Mr. Hales and his partner, Travis Hastings, teamed up and founded Coastal Growers in 2008. Both men run family-owned operations near each other on the Delmarva Peninsula -- Mr. Hales runs Hales Farms Inc. in Salisbury, MD, while Mr. Hastings runs Lakeside Farms Inc. about 20 miles away in Laurel, DE.

Now in their third season, the duo grows both seedless and seeded watermelons on about 550 acres in the two states, which Mr. Hales deemed "a great growing region," from mid-July through mid-September.

"We joined forces in 2008," Mr. Hales told The Produce News July 10. "I was thinking about teaming with someone, and we have been friends for a long time. It seemed like the time was right."

Mr. Hastings agreed. "We have always grown for a broker, and we have wanted to go out on our own for a while," he told The Produce News. "I thought it was time to take the gamble and hoped the rewards would be worth it -- and it was."

"We haven't looked back since," Mr. Hales said proudly, noting that the firm's "customer base has grown tremendously in the last three years."

Mr. Hales was proud to announce that for the 2010 season, Coastal Growers will be Good Agricultural Practices certified and will have YottaMark's HarvestMark for case- and item-level traceability of its watermelons.

The firm has also purchased and was in the process of installing washers for both of its packing facilities in Delaware and Maryland. Mr. Hales said that the firm would also be sanitizing its watermelons to kill all living bacteria on the shell and to give the watermelons a longer shelf life, making Coastal Growers "one of only a handful in the industry doing this."

He said, "We want our customers and consumers to know that we're willing to go the extra mile for food safety."

Coastal Growers has also purchased a new labeling machine that will put stickers with eye-catching graphics on the firm's watermelons, which Mr. Hales said will also help "set us apart from the competition."

Mr. Hales said that Coastal Growers has benefited greatly from the recent locally grown movement. "The movement has been humongous for us," he said. "It has been the greatest publicity for agriculture in general, and it is right in line for what we are doing here."

Coastal Growers sells directly to its clients, which are primarily major retail chains in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Mr. Hales said that Coastal Growers makes arrangements for shipping its products, and the firm will gladly ship its produce to wherever a customer may be located in the United States.

The Hales and Hastings families have been growing in the Delmarva region for over a hundred years, and Mr. Hales and Mr. Hastings are both third- generation growers.

Mr. Hales' father, Donald, founded Hales Farms in the mid-1950s and was one of the first growers in the country to grow seedless watermelons in the early 1980s.

Donald Hales told The Produce News that he was "real proud of Will and Travis. They are doing a great job."

Donald Hales was friends with Mr. Hastings' father, Johnny, and convinced the elder Mr. Hastings to start growing seedless watermelons on his farm, making him one of the first seedless watermelon growers in Delaware.

"I wish he lived to see Coastal Growers. He would have been mighty proud," Mr. Hastings said, noting that his father died about four years ago, before the firm was founded.

Mr. Hastings also gave credit to his mother, Pat, who helped his father grow the family business into a success and who still works with him doing office work and managing Lakeside Farms' food-safety program.

Not content to rest on their laurels, the duo are already working Coastal Growers' "next phase."

Mr. Hastings said, "Our goal is to expand from watermelons to offer a full product line."

Both grow cantaloupes, while Mr. Hales grows vine-ripe tomatoes and Bell peppers and Mr. Hastings grows fresh-market sweet corn.

"I'm extremely proud of everything we've accomplished in such a short amount of time," Mr. Hales said. "It's worked out really well for both of us."