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Water issues cause shift in planting for West Side cantaloupes

Total acreage planted and yet to be planted this season for cantaloupes on the West Side of California’s San Joaquin Valley is expected to be similar to last year, with perhaps a slight variation up or down depending on the observer.

But what is apparent is that there has been some shift in where the acreage is planted, as water restrictions, particularly in the Westlands Water District, which supplies federal water to much of the West Side, melons-mixedHarvest of cantaloupes, honeydew melons and specialty melons from the West Side of California’s San Joaquin Valley was expected to start shortly before the Fourth of July. Acreage is thought generally to be within a few percentage points of last year, although some growers have switched locations due to water restrictions. (Photo by Rand Green)has put some traditional melon acreage out of production.

Some acreage for the late part of the West Side melon deal had yet to be planted, according to John Gilstrap, manager of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board in Dinuba, CA. But planted acreage “looks pretty good,” he said. “It is probably up a little bit from last year.”

When asked if there had been any cutbacks in planting due to lack of acreage, he acknowledged, “There may be some of that,” but he said those growers generally found other places to plant.

“I think the overall acreage this year is down about 5 to 10 percent on cantaloupes,” said Atomic Torosian, a partner in Crown Jewels Produce Co. in Fresno, CA. “Some of it might be because of the lack of water” faced by “some of our mid- to late-season growers.” Some of those growers may have opted to grow other commodities that require less water during the restriction period, but “in some cases they might not grow anything” on that land. “More and more of the ground on the West Side” is being planted to trees and vines, he said.

Crown Jewels represents Perez Packing Inc. in Firebaugh, CA, which packs the “King Crow” label. Cantaloupe and honeydew acreage for the company this year is expected to be “pretty close to the same. We might be up 5 percent over last year in our program, but it is not a huge increase,” Torosian said. “It is going to be earlier than we have been in a long while,” with the company’s cantaloupes are expected to start the third weeks of June and continue into October.

“The last year or two we have started after the Fourth of July,” said Torosian. This year, “we should have some cantaloupes up here for the Fourth of July promos on the West Coast,” as always weather permitting.

The company’s production starts in Huron in the southern part of the valley, he said. “Then we move up to the Firebaugh district” then to the Los Banos district, and finally “all the way up into the northern area of Crow’s Landing” for the latter part of the season.

The weather has “cooled off a little bit” since the end of June, and it appeared the start of the harvest in the San Joaquin Valley may be a little later than previously expected, according to Jim Malanca, a partner in Westside Produce in Firebaugh, CA.

Temperatures were still “very warm” in California’s southern desert, and the melon harvest there was going “very strongly,” Malanca said. But in Central California, while he expects a good crop for the industry, starting before the Fourth of July, there was a question “whether they can make the markets in volume before the Fourth” or whether buyers would have to rely largely on supplies from other areas.

With regard to acreage, “I don’t think there is going to be a lot of change,” Malanca said. “I’ve heard a couple of guys are up 100 acres or down 100 acres, but it is not all totally planted yet. There are some water issues as everybody knows.”

Growers are “having to use some creative practices to get enough water in some locations,” and some locations that were traditionally cantaloupe ground “you are not going to have any cantaloupes because it is too hard to get water for them. You can get it, but it is pretty expensive.”

That is a problem that has been going on for several years as water supplies on the West Side continue to tighten. Along with that, the shift to other locations, such as the Delta area in the northern part of the valley where water issues are less acute, has also been going on for several years.

“We have growers that have switched areas,” Malanca said. The net result is that “as a company at Westside Produce, our acreage is about the same.” He expected to begin harvesting by the first of July. “I’m not going to start as fast as I thought I was going to start a few weeks ago,” he said.

Westside Produce is primarily a cantaloupe shipper but also handles some honeydews.

“We grow enough honeydews to sell for mixer business,” Malanca said. “We have them here in the cooler as a matter of convenience.”

Couture Farms in Huron, CA, which grows primarily specialty melons along with a few honeydews, has made some small reductions in its planting this year due to water restrictions.

“We did in fact end up trimming back a couple of blocks, mostly just to save water,” said Steve Couture, a partner in the company. “It was mostly a function of the fact that the water supply on the West Side here kept shrinking and shrinking every couple of weeks.”

Even with that, he said, “I see quite a few melons here in the Huron area.”

Couture Farms used to grow some cantaloupes, but discontinued that last year. In addition to honeydews, conventional and organic, the company grows Cranshaws, Casabas, Persians, Canaries, Orange Flesh, Santa Claus, Galias and Hamis.

He expected to start harvest before July 1 and to have “a pretty good rundown” of all varieties by July 5.