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Keith Connell’s watermelon growers all audited in 2011

This year, for the first time, all the watermelon farms associated with Keith Connell Inc. will have their food-safety procedures audited by third parties.

Michael Meyer, who manages the watermelon category for Keith Connell in Stillwell, KS, said that he has provided his growers with the necessary background information on third-party audits. Beyond that, he said, “The farmers literally have do to it themselves. This is the first year all my growers will have that done. They’ve got to jump in and do it just like everybody else. It’s an expense the farmers have to pay and roll into the price of their watermelons.”

Food-safety audits for Keith Connell’s growers in Georgia and southeast Missouri bring a challenge because packingsheds in these locations are used for only a few months a year. Those facilities “are inactive with anything unless it is watermelons. So they literally can’t get audits done until they are actually in production or literally going to start production in a day or two,” Mr. Meyer said. “They can’t do it over the winter like a vegetable shed in California or Texas. When things aren’t going with watermelons, they use the facilities for storage of farm products.”

Despite difficult timing challenges, the growers “have to do the stuff necessary to comply with inspections,” he said. The pressure is now on the growers as the shipping season approaches.

But Mr. Meyer stressed that those audits must be passed, “because all the chain customers around the country are all concerned that they [be able to] trace the source of the melons.”

In a May 17 interview with The Produce News, Mr. Meyer was anticipating the improvement of the weather in major national population centers. Many major cities were generally suffering from unusually cold and wet weather as Memorial Day approached.

“Watermelons don’t sell when it’s cold and rainy, and there are not a lot of ads right now. The retailers have chosen not to advertise [watermelons] until Memorial Day. When they’re not on ad, they don’t sell well. They are high-priced in stores.” The bright side, Mr. Meyer said, is that “it will warm up and holiday business will be on us soon. It has been a slow-starting spring. There is not much going on.”

As a result, in mid-May, he said that the national market for watermelons “is pretty sick right now. There are lots of melons and not much business.”

In mid-May, Keith Connell was shipping Mexican watermelons through Nogales, AZ, and Texas melons from the southern tip of the Lone Star State. Growers in north Florida were “just getting going now,” he said.

As a result, “there are plenty of watermelons. The guys in south Florida are starting to clean up a little bit. The market eventually will get better, but I doubt it will get up to our lid prices. We are getting close to the Memorial Day pull, and there is not a lot going on now. That has more to do with [receiving point] weather than anything else. I sell a lot to Chicago. It’s cold and rainy. St. Louis and Kansas City have been cold and rainy. There is not a whole lot we can do about it.”

Mr. Meyer said that the company’s next shipping area will be Cordele, GA, where the watermelons were grapefruit-sized in mid-May. Cordele was expected to begin around June 10, “depending on the weather.”

Keith Connell’s largest watermelon deal is in southeast Missouri and was expected to “get going about July 1,” Mr. Meyer said.

The quality of all shipping areas was “very good” in mid-May. “That is always the case. The markets are cheapest when the quality is the best. When there isn’t much around” and prices are high, a careful eye is needed to watch melon quality, he said.