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Early Westside deal expected to have normal volume

As with many commodities in California this year, the start of the melon season on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley — also known as the Central Valley — will be earlier than normal. Some growers expect a start as much as two weeks early, and some just a few days early.

Growing conditions have been excellent, according to Steve Smith, president of Turlock Fruit Co. Inc., in Turlock, CA. “It is one of the best early growing seasons we have had in my memory. It accelerated growth,” and there has been “a real absence of any kind of disease. It looks really good.”03-WSideMelons-Crop-retail-A retail display of cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelons.

The ongoing California drought and the regulatory environment that has resulted in reduced deliveries of water to agricultural users on the west side has had an effect on the melon deal, but seemingly not in terms of total acreage planted. Rather, it has triggered a shift in acreage, as melon-growing operations are relocated from land that has water issues — either with regard to water availability or water quality — onto land with better availability of better quality water.

To a large extent, that has meant a reduction of acreage in some of the earlier growing districts such as Huron and an increase in plantings farther north in such areas as Los Banos and Turlock, sources say.

The net effect may be lighter supplies during the first two or three weeks of July, with strong supplies expected from the latter part of July into October.

Anticipating later supplies on the front end of the Westside deal, some growers with melon production in the desert areas of Arizona and California have planted for later-than-usual harvest. Where they might normally have run through the first of July, now they expect to go past mid-July, compensating for the reduction in early melon volume from the lower west side. When those factors are combined with the earlier start to the Westside deal this year, the net effect on melon supplies in the market may be negligible and promotable volumes may be available throughout the summer.

How steady those volumes are expected to be is a matter of opinion. Jim Malanca, a partner in Westside Produce in Firebaugh, CA, told The Produce News May 30, “My belief is the supply of melons is going to be up and down, and it is going to be hard to predict.” However, “you still have to keep promoting melons, because if you don’t promote them, they don’t move,” he said.

“We have talked to our core customers, and some of them are going to be a little more flexible” with regard to the sizes they will accept, Malanca said. That is important because there is some uncertainty as to how melons will size on some of the new ground they are planted on. “Everybody has moved their melons to different ground that may produce smaller melons. It is uncharted territory.”

Westside Produce is “trying to work with our individual customers on promoting at the times that they want to promote, that we have the supply,” he said, noting that the company’s focus this year is on “trying to maintain our core customers,” whether retailers, foodservice accounts or distributors.

Garrett Patricio, vice president and general counsel at Westside Produce, emphasized, however, that “in general the industry should be about normal” with good supplies through peak season. He expects “no major changes” this year with regard to cantaloupes.

“I think overall acreage might be down a little bit, but I think there will be enough cantaloupes out there for good promotions all the way through the entire season,” said Atomic Torosian, a partner in Crown Jewels Produce LLC in Fresno, CA which sells the “King’s Crow” deal from Perez Packing Inc. in Firebaugh, CA.

Torosian said he has heard that melon acreage is moving farther north in the valley, but “we don’t know that for a fact and don’t have the actual numbers.” Some growers in the California desert and in Arizona “have tried to plant to fill that gap” due to acreage reductions in the earliest Westside districts, he said. “If they can avoid any rain or other issues they might be able to hit a window there.”

There are fewer water issues in some of the more northerly Westside growing areas such as Crow’s Landing, Torosian said. “But I think over the next couple of years, unless we get some rain and can store it up a little bit it is going to be more of a challenge.”

“It looks like Bakersfield and Huron, the early Westside deal is going to be light,” said Wes Liefer, a partner in Pura Vida Farms LLC in Scottsdale, AZ. For that reason, Pura Vida, which grows melons in Arizona and the California desert and buys and sells from the west side, has planted for a later harvest in the desert this year than usual.

If people think melons will be in short supply in the early part of July, and there are no ads in place, that could be a problem, he said. “You want your customers continually advertising.”

There is “some good fruit that comes out of the Bakersfield and Huron area,” Liefer said. “There might not be as much of it this year, but there will be fruit.”

He expects the best promotional opportunities for Westside melons this year to start about July 20.