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Brazil's canary melons headed back to the United States

by Tim Linden | September 12, 2010
The first shipload of Brazilian canary melons from Itaueira Farms in northeastern Brazil is expected to arrive on the East Coast of the United States Sept. 20, according to Rodrigo Lima, who handles the company's North American sales through Crown International USA LLC in Key Biscayne, FL.

Mr. Lima said that volume should be similar to last year, "but we don’t focus on volume, we focus on quality."

Itaueira Farms, which is owned and operated by Carlos Prado and his family, has been growing, shipping and selling canary melons since 1983. For many years, the firm concentrated on domestic sales, but in recent years it has expanded its reach into both Europe and the United States.

Itaueira started exporting to Europe in 2000 and introduced “REI” brand melons in the United States during the 2007 Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention.

“We served melon samples during show time. It was a huge success,” Mr. Lima said.

Itaueira Farms and Crown International have attempted to accent the top- quality and premium nature of the melon through both packaging and branding.

The melon is labeled under the “REI” brand, which means “king” in Portuguese, the native language of Brazil where it is known by the slogan “The Flavor King.”

“But most important is that each melon is packed in Brazil with a net surrounding it,” according to Mr. Lima, who said that the effect in the supermarket produce department is stunning and helps set this melon apart from any other product in the category.

“The idea is that if the consumer keeps the 'REI’ brand and the net as the same set, that will be easier to remember,” he said. “After they try this very, very tasty melon, they can come back and buy another one and they will know what to look for.”

Mr. Lima said that the company philosophy is to “try to sell a flavor rather than the fruit.”

He explained that this melon is grown differently in the field than others in the category, which sets it apart.

“For most melons that are under the commodity category, the harvesters will come through the field and harvest all the melons at once. That isn’t what we do,” he said. “We want each melon in the box to have a consistent flavor. So the first time through the field, we only harvest the first melon on each branch.”

Mr. Lima explained that the specialized quality-control employees are in the field every day testing the level of sugar and do not harvest the fruit until it achieves the perfect Brix level. After the first harvest, the harvesters again wait until the next batch of melons reach their perfect level of sweetness. Although Itaueira Farms has three Brazilian farming locations that produce canary melons year round, only the farm at its headquarters in the state of Ceara is currently certified to ship product into the United States. Because of that, the company ships into the United States from mid-September into February.

“We are currently working to certify our other farms [as pest free], but the USDA has not completed their testing yet,” Mr. Lima said. “Hopefully we will achieve that next year.”

For this season, Mr. Lima, who is president of Crown International, said that the quality of the fruit will actually be better than last year because of better weather. “We had excellent weather at the beginning of the growing season, which has resulted in a very high taste quality earlier than we had last year.” He added that Brazilian canary melons have developed a following in the United States with good demand at a good retail price.

Mr. Lima said that the melon is even more popular in its native country. “It is a bestseller in Brazil and sells for about twice what it sells for in the United States.”

Itaueira Farms, however, is continuing to expand the market for this melon as well as for some of the other melons it grows. The company grows and then ships both the Piel del Sapo melon and a mini seedless watermelon to the United States. Both of those melons are also packaged with the “REI” brand in the firm’s signature netting to create the same premium concept.

In addition, Mr. Lima said that Itaueira Farms is experimenting with a new, tasty melon that it expects to ship to the United States within the next couple of years.

The firm, under the Itaueira Farms banner, will again be participating at the PMA convention next month in Orlando, FL, to reacquaint U.S. produce buyers with the Brazilian canary melons.