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Melon quality was very high and the market strong as Guatemala's melon deal commenced in late November.

Louis Kertesz, vice president of Fresh Quest Inc. in Pompano Beach, FL, said Nov. 29 that his firm received the season’s first Central American melons Nov. 19.

"The quality right out of the gate was, on a scale of one to 10, a nine-plus. We have great sugars."

Mr. Kertesz added that he is “pretty pleased” with the market situation, especially with the West Coast domestic deal marked by “little movement over the last month, with low sugar levels, short shelf life and very expensive. So, yes, we have a good market starting out, and at least, if customers are going to pay good money, now they will get a good product.”

It was Nov. 29 when Fresh Quest received its first fully loaded vessel of melons, which arrived at port Manatee in Florida. Fresh Quest planned to receive its first loads of melons into California and the Northeast during the first week of December.

The firm’s Honduran melon program was expected to begin in late December or early January.

All of Fresh Quest’s Central American cantaloupes are the Harper variety, which the company has been researching and developing for seven or eight years, according to Mr. Kertesz. “Last year, everyone jumped in with some variety of the Harper variety of cantaloupe. We learned with the years of research and development, and we definitely feel our fruit has been more successful than what is shipped by some of the competition. What we’ve done hit the trend” to suit consumers’ demands in cantaloupe characteristics.

As a result, competitors “followed us. We, a couple years ago, were the only company that produced the Harper variety commercially. Now everyone is trying to match us. It is very flattering when people try to follow you, since we had a foothold from the beginning in trials. We learned from our mistakes and do a better job than everyone else. If we didn’t do it right, we would be hurting like everyone else.”

Beyond the Harper variety, which represents “the bulk” of the Fresh Quest program, “we do honeydew also. In watermelons, we are very light. We have developed some new areas outside the Zacapa Valley (in Guatemala) for watermelons.”

Going into December, Fresh Quest anticipated a steady growth in melon volume. “The only area now producing is Guatemala.”

While Fresh Quest’s volume is up for 2010-11, the industry melon volume is expected to be “down quite a bit of a percentage. This should hold a strong, steady market throughout the holidays. If there is a glut for the holidays after the first cycle” when new production from Honduras comes in, “we feel the market will spike back up. There are not many players in Honduras. And Costa Rica is much lighter this year.” As a result, “there will be a more stable, consistent market than previous years.”

In late November melon pricing, “we have an upper-teen market. Last year at this time, we were at the bottom of the bottom,” with carton prices in the $5 to $7 range.

What has changed this year is not only an overall volume decrease in Central America, but the domestic melon deal in 2009 ran through the end of December 2009, he said. It finished almost five weeks earlier in 2010.

“In Honduras, some companies have just decreased their volume,” Mr. Kertesz explained. “Some independent growers are not in business any longer. In general, people were hurt over the last couple years because markets were not that great. They decided to scale back more.”

Not only is Fresh Quest’s Central American melon volume up, but “we have added a domestic program to our program to have product in the late fall and early spring.” This will run “prior to offshore and continues after it is finished,” making Fresh Quest a melon shipper for eight-and-a-half to nine months per year.

Mr. Kertesz said that Fresh Quest has enjoyed “very good success because we have done a very good job with the varieties we do. We have a good, diversified customer base. When people are scaling back, we are moving forward.”

As Fresh Quest considers a domestic program, “we are toying in acreage in Arizona near the Yuma [AZ] area. We are just scratching it this year. There will not be any volume to it. We got some land out there that we are playing with, and we see potential to grow in the future.”

Early this coming spring, Fresh Quest may begin to have some Yuma production. The firm has planted a dozen different melon varieties “to see how it goes,” Mr. Kertesz said. “We never want to stand flat. We have been very successful, but everything can run its course. So we are looking at newer, better varieties to test. Everyone wants to minimize headaches and troubles. That is what our goal is.”

Mr. Kertesz noted that Fresh Quest is shipping Central American melons to Europe. “It’s a good year to go to Europe. A lot of Brazilian farmers dropped out” of the melon business, so “the Europeans are looking to Central America for sourcing melons.” When Central American shippers have “another market source, it will help keep prices fairly stable. That’s how we foresee it.”