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NWPB takes watermelon promotions to new heights

by Joel Gebet | October 19, 2010
Gordon Hunt has promoted watermelon in several unique locations over the years for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, including Japan and the furthest eastern point in North America.

However, his most recent promotion has taken watermelons to new heights — 8,800 feet to be exact.

On Sept. 9, Mr. Hunt, the board's director of marketing and communications, along with Dan Van Groningen, a managing partner at Manteca, CA-based watermelon grower-packer-shipper Van Groningen & Sons Inc., and Eldon Parker and Wade Schwark, both from Stockton, CA-based Lockhart Seed Inc., made an 18-mile, 4,800-foot climb to the top of Yosemite National Park’s iconic Half Dome rock formation in California, where they handed out some slices of Van Groningen’s mini watermelons and talked to hikers from across the globe about watermelon.

Mr. Hunt told The Produce News in early October that the idea came about in March when he and Mr. Van Groningen were in Tokyo at Foodex Japan, billed as Asia’s top trade food and beverage show.

Van Groningen & Sons ships under the "Yosemite" label, and Mr. Van Groningen talked to several Foodex attendees about Yosemite National Park, which he lives near and hikes in frequently with his wife, especially in the fall when the weather is still good and the tourists have left.

He suggested to Mr. Hunt that he should come out to California and they would climb up Half Dome.

“I didn’t know anything about Half Dome, and I thought, 'That sounds like great fun,’“ Mr. Hunt told The Produce News. “I didn’t think anything about it until later in the spring [when] Dan got back to me and said, ‘By the way, we’re lining up some people from the industry to climb up Half Dome and we’ll take some watermelon up there.’ I said, ‘It sounds like a great idea.’“

Mr. Van Groningen has made the trek about seven times, Mr. Hunt said, and the former told him that “it’s a nice hike,” but recommended that the latter should start doing some training using a stair stepper and making sure he wore boots that were broken in.

Messrs. Van Groningen and Hunt are both Vietnam veterans and are about the same age, in their early 60s, so Mr. Hunt assumed that “a nice hike” would not be that difficult.

“I figured, I’m in reasonably good shape, I’ll do some walking, ride my bike in the morning, and eat more watermelon as it’s good for your cardiovascular system,” he said. “Boy was I wrong!”

Mr. Hunt said that he was already at a disadvantage, as his hiking companions were all from California and therefore had experience with higher elevations, while he lives in the Orlando, FL, area, at sea level.

When they were about to begin their climb, Mr. Hunt said that Mr. Van Groningen turned to him and said, “I hope you’ve been working out hard because this is a really hard climb.”

Mr. Hunt asked his friend, “How about a nice hike,” and Mr. Van Groningen replied, “Oh, it’s a nice hike too.”

Along with their hiking packs, lunch and granola bars, they also brought a banner with Van Groningen & Sons’ logo and two of the mini watermelons that the firm is currently shipping to Japan.

“They were maxi minis,” Mr. Gordon joked. “They started out weighing about five or six pounds, but by the top, they weighed about 130 pounds!”

The men started their climb at 4 a.m., and after eight hours of hard climbing up a series of “staircases” that are made from huge blocks of granite that Mr. Hunt described “like climbing the Great Pyramid,” he said that the final 800 feet were the most difficult. This involved literally pulling themselves up a “path” of steel cables that are drilled into slick granite that makes up the rock formation. The “path” is on a 45- to 50-degree angle, and traversing it required using all of Mr. Hunt’s upper body strength.

Mr. Parker, who runs marathons and was the first to make it to the top, told people who were at the top to wait because he had friends who were bringing watermelon up, so they should stick around and get some free watermelon.

“By the time we got to the top, people were asking ‘Are you the watermelon guys?’“ Mr. Hunt said, noting that about 30-40 people were at the summit and that many sampled the watermelon and talked to them about it. “We were extremely popular up there once we unfurled the banner.”

Mr. Hunt said that “the best part” of the hike was seeing a group of Japanese hikers; he called out to them in Japanese (Mr. Hunt is fluent in Japanese), “Would you like some watermelon?” like it would be done in a store in Japan if someone was doing a demo.

The group stopped in its tracks and jaws just dropped, Mr. Hunt said. “You could see them going, ‘What?’“ he said. “You knew that they were thinking, ‘It sounds like that guy is speaking Japanese and saying something about watermelon.’“

Mr. Hunt offered them each a watermelon slice, which he said had a very high Brix, “and they said, ‘Boy, this is really good.’“

One of the women in the group said, “I wish we had watermelon this good in Japan,” and Mr. Hunt replied, “You do. I introduced them to Dan and said this is the grower and this is the exact same watermelon that he just shipped to Japan, and you can get it in fine stores like Seiyu and Daiei.”

The group started the climb down, which Mr. Hunt said was just as difficult because just after leaving the top of Half Dome, there is almost a strait drop down, so he had to use the steel cables to keep gravity from bringing him back down the hard way.

“Every time we got to the next part” of the descent, “I would think the worst was over, but it wasn’t. Now I was seeing the climb I made up in the light, and I thought, ‘How did I ever make it up?’“

He finally made it back down about 6 p.m., and crawled into his tent, utterly exhausted.

“No one could believe we carried the watermelons up there,” Mr. Hunt said, adding that he lost five pounds on the climb. “We actually had very good discussions with people about watermelons, so as a watermelon promotion, it worked out very well.”