Sizzling summer watermelon promotions kick into high gear

It’s pedal to the metal time now that the number four Chevy is hitting the NASCAR circuit for the National Watermelon Promotion Board. Stephanie Barlow, NWPB director of public relations and social media, said racecar driver Ross Chastain — who kicked off the NASCAR schedule in Richmond, VA, Talladega, AL and Dover, DE — now has his sights set on the Daytona 500 on July 4. Chastain’s action-packed schedule in the Chevy concludes at the Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on Labor Day.

“We’ve started a ‘Show Us Your W’ campaign for social media tagging and upping the response to watermelon giveaways at these events,” said Barlow. “We ask people to post a picture online showing us a W with the hashtag #WatermelonFTW [for the win]. We have Ross posting, the watermelon queens posting, and the Watermelon Board posting, driving traffic and excitement to watermelon.”

The board participates in the Marine Corps Marathon, helping to rehydrate, replenish and recover athletes. Barlow said people can learn more about watermelon’s health benefits to the active running community at related events, and fruit is frequently served at the finish line. “Not only do we give away a truckload of watermelon to thousands and thousands of runners and their supporters, but we are also educating about the health, value and versatility benefits of watermelon year-round,” she commented.

PromotionsOVThe National Watermelon Promotion Board will once again sponsor retail contests during the summer designed to increase watermelon sales. (Photo courtesy of the National Watermelon Promotion Board)It’s officially a record breaker: the board has received over 120 entries for the 2015 carving contest. “This year, we are splitting the contest in two, offering the same contest for experienced and beginner carvers,” Barlow said. “There is just so much talent and creativity out there. We award extra points for originality but also best use of other produce items and the staging of the entry photo.”

Last year, a Star Spangled Watermelon category was added, commemorating the 200th birthday of the country’s national anthem. This year, cash prizes will be awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners in the categories of Most Elegant, Best Fruit Basket, Best Animal, Funniest and Star Spangled.

“The first 25 entries get a watermelon cutting board entry prize as well,” Barlow continued. “Then we award a grand prize People’s Choice voted online through a gallery, and this year we are introducing a Judges’ Choice. Again, cash prizes. All together, we are giving away over $3,000 in cash.”

On the retail level, summertime promotions will focus on the watermelon queen program and the busy schedule of in-store watermelon sampling and giveaways, organized by each of the board’s state chapters. “Also, the big July Retail Display contest which has a heavy [Defense Commissary Agency] participation,” she added.

The board is in the inaugural year of its new foodservice program. Barlow said the goal is to better understand the opportunity and help the foodservice audience, and strong research initiatives are being developed. “The first research initiative is Datassential Menu Trends research to understand the current landscape for watermelon at foodservice,” she said.

The board also plans to invest in a cutting, yield and storage study to better arm the foodservice industry with the tools needed to balance the yield and time it takes to cut a watermelon as well as strategies to make the fruit last once it’s cut.

“The NWPB’s first big splash with foodservice media will be the International Foodservice Editorial Council’s Reception at the National Restaurant Show,” Barlow continued. “The board will network with foodservice media as they try the Watermelon Rind Slaw and Watermelon Bruschetta [recipes].”

NWPB is working to make contacts at the commercial and non-commercial foodservice level with chefs and operators to get more watermelon on menus. “Sponsoring events such as the National Association of College and University Food Services, PMA Foodservice and The Flavor Experience will help the board make the connections necessary and highlight the versatile watermelon and its many menu applications,” she went on to say.

The board is also looking for promotion partners within chains and universities in 2015. “Consumer awareness of having a watermelon menu item only helps to inspire consumers to buy a watermelon and try the recipe out at home,” Barlow said.

2015 Jersey Fresh produce season underway with good quantities of high-quality crops

The 2015 Jersey Fresh produce season is underway and should be highlighted by good quantities of high-quality produce. According to the New Jersey state climatologist, this winter was a cold and snowy season with below-average temperatures. March temperatures averaged 35.8 degrees, which is 5.3 degrees below normal and ranks as the 14th coldest winter since 1895. March 2015 was 0.5 degrees “milder” than March 2014. With the exception of 1914-15 and 1940-41, no other consecutive months of March have averaged such cold temperatures in the past 121 years.

This marks two record cold winters in a row. Winter produced sufficient “chilling units” for peaches and other fruits that need some winter chill to develop. This chill also should result in less insect pressure this season due to an extensive winter kill. Soil temperatures had been cold through mid-April, but then warmer overnights, combined with warmer daytime temperatures, raised soil temperatures and encouraged germination and/or growth.

tomatoes-9 This year’s growing season started a few weeks later than normal similar to last year. Winter did have an impact on any vegetables that “winter-over” and ripen up quickly in the spring as lesser quantities and more variable quality was seen than normal. This cooler weather caused many growers to delay plowing, seeding and transplanting at earlier dates than the past few years. We also saw more gradual growing conditions and bee pollination this spring. All spring crops were planted at least two weeks later than usual and the seasonally cool growing conditions our farmers have seen should allow most produce varieties to grow and project at a slightly later than normal harvest date though unusual future weather could always have an impact upon the eventual harvest time. Our cool spring nighttime temperatures also created excellent quality lettuces, greens, and strawberries. Other than starting a little later than normal, we hope that this season measures up to last year in terms of quality and quantity of Jersey Fresh produce.

New Jersey farmers grow more than 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables due to its moderate climate and inherent “Jersey Fresh” qualities. New Jersey’s 11 principal fresh-market vegetables are tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers, cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, eggplant, escarole, snap beans, and asparagus. Our five principal fresh-market fruits are strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples and cranberries.

The early season harvests of spinach, collards, beets, radishes, escarole/endive, Swiss chard, lettuces and herbs such as parsley, dill, coriander and cilantro have gone very well. Asparagus harvesting began in late April with excellent quality. Cabbage, pickles and turnip harvests began at the end of May. Cucumbers and squash will start in mid-June. Consumers always look for sweet corn and tomatoes by July 4th and, with a later than normal start to the season this year, both may not have much volume by then this year.

Chandler variety strawberries are being grown in increasing quantities by our growers to meet the strong demand for locally grown berries. They are grown in raised beds and under black plastic. They’re picked when ripe and have more red interior color, a larger berry size, and an excellent taste. Early harvests began in mid-May with the bulk of the crop harvested toward the end of the month and with light volume expected to continue into early June.

Minor quantities of early blueberry varieties like Weymouth should be starting in the third week of June. The much more widely planted Duke variety should start three to four days later, with volume available a week after that. In 2014, New Jersey produced about 8,800 acres of berries yielding about 56.7 million pounds — fifth in the nation.

Yellow peach volume will start with the early “cling” varieties the third week of July, with fair volume by early August. The widely planted John Boy “clingless” varieties should start by the beginning of August. Good yellow volume is expected by mid-August through mid-September. White peach volume begins with the White Lady variety in the third week of August through mid-September. About 150 peach producers grew 44 million pounds of quality peaches on 4,600 acres in New Jersey in 2014 — fourth in the nation.

New Jersey growers are also looking to satisfy the growing ethnic population of the state and the demand for Asian and other ethnic specialty produce, particularly melons, squashes, peppers and eggplants. There are numerous field trials of these new ethnic varieties being grown by farmers and agricultural agents throughout the state. This area of production is thought to have a large growth potential.

This season will see another excellent Jersey Fresh marketing effort. For the sixth summer in a row, the NJDA has secured a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant that will allow Jersey Fresh to advertise on television, radio, and in trade media this season. These funds also enable the program to hire two seasonal interns that will assist staff in visiting retailers to distribute point-of-sale materials.

The weekly “Jersey Fresh Forecast & Availability” again will be disseminated this year through e-mail and the Jersey Fresh website and social media channels and will continue to maintain regular contact with buyers and consumers. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture will do its best to help deliver another banner year.

Bill Walker, NJDA Bureau of Market Development & Product Promotion.


Kneeland leaving Kings for new position with Ahold

Veteran produce retailer Paul Kneeland is leaving Kings Food Markets, based in Parsippany, NJ, to lead fresh food merchandising for a new division of Ahold USA called Fresh Formats LLC.

Kneeland, whose last day at Kings is May 29, told The Produce News that he would become vice president of fresh merchandising for the division. He said the first store, which has yet to be named, is scheduled to open in Massachusetts at the end of the summer. He declined to provide further information about the store, other than to say it is “a new concept.”

kneelandKneelandKneeland began his retail career at Roche Bros., based in Wellesley, MA, and worked there for 26 years, rising to director of produce and floral operations. He joined Kings in 2007 to lead that chain’s produce and floral divisions. At the time of his departure, he held the title of vice president of produce, floral, seafood and meat, overseeing virtually all of King’s fresh food operations.

“It’s been a tremendous eight years at Kings,” he said. “It’s been an absolute pleasure working with the team here, and I am especially proud of how we advanced the merchandising strategy of the fresh foods.”

Kneeland was instrumental in bringing Kings’ 24 Hour Just Picked Promise Program to fruition. That popular program, now in its fourth year, endeavors to bring locally grown farm-fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs to retail shelves within 24 hours of being picked.

Kneeland said he wasn’t looking to leave Kings, but “a great opportunity came along and it was too good to pass up. It’s a start-up operation that presents a great challenge for me, and I love challenges. I am very much looking forward to it.”

The former Eastern Produce Council president said he would continue to reside in New Jersey and would try to remain involved with the council and attend meetings when he can, but “obviously my focus will be on the new position.”

Arizona Leafy Greens’ Food Safety Training Program is a one-stop solution

The Arizona Food Safety Training Committee — otherwise known as the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement — is introducing for sale a comprehensive food-safety training kit.

The Phoenix-based organization will make-available at the United Fresh convention this Arizona Leafy Greens Food Safety Training Kit, which was created with the Arizona State Department of Agriculture. The kit is also available for immediate download through a secure online portal from its new website The online store is the first time the Arizona Department of Agriculture has ventured into online commerce. The Arizona Department of Agriculture administers the Arizona Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement program but industry 100 percent pays for it.

“We began a process two years ago to make the Food Safety Training Kit (FSTK) available online, in our ongoing quest to make this universal program as flexible and accessible as possible,” said Vicki-Lynne Scott, technical subcommittee chairperson and board member of the Arizona Leafy Greens Food Safety Committee. “With anticipated FSMA standards, employing our practices now can give farmers and harvesters a head start when compliance deadlines come closer.”

FSTK-all The store offers the entire Food Safety Training Kit for the introductory price of $499, which includes all materials in both English and Spanish (workplace posters, tailgate flip charts, DVDs, training binders, etc.), as well as a la carte pricing for supplemental materials starting at just $5.

At United Fresh, attendees can purchase the entire kit, with all camera-ready materials, on a thumb drive. The FSTK can also be acquired electronically through a secure web link or via FedEx shipping. The site takes major credit cards. Traditional purchases can still be made with a purchase order or electronic check. Scott and Arizona Leafy Greens Program Administrator Teressa Lopez will be at United Fresh to demo the materials, alongside Arizona’s counterparts from California LGMA.

The organization’s comprehensive Food Safety Training Program is targeted for harvest supervisors and foremen, food-safety coordinators, production supervisors, quality control personnel, extension educators and/or industry consultants who conduct food-safety training at leafy greens farms, and is specifically targeted at those who handle leafy greens before, during or after harvest. The program was designed to ensure compliance with federal regulations for food safety, including anticipated Food Safety Modernization Act standards.

“Our training program has become a model in the industry, with the FDA even suggesting coordination with Arizona and our California counterpart on ensuring compliance with new FSMA rules for food safety,” said Vicki-Lynne Scott.

Earlier this year, Arizona Leafy Greens introduced Module 4 to its comprehensive program. Pre-Harvest and Daily Harvest Environmental Assessments addresses the industry’s need to train those responsible for monitoring potential environmental contaminants. The highly technical module is specifically designed for those in supervisory roles and personnel who conduct daily field assessments, providing templates to encourage uniformity in monitoring. The development of Module 4 coincided with the production and launch of a bilingual DVD series, a plug-and-play version of the entire FSTK. The six-chapter video series was shot on-site at farms throughout Arizona, and closely follows the format of the Arizona Leafy Greens’ Food Safety Training Kit. It features a general orientation, and chapters on foodborne outbreaks, leafy greens contaminants, personal hygiene, hand washing and cross-contamination in the field.

The videos are produced in both English and Spanish, and range in length from five to 12 minutes. The video series was made possible in part by a USDA specialty crop block grant awarded to fund various initiatives that strengthen and expand economic opportunities for local and regional producers. The Food Safety Training Kit is a comprehensive training tool that addresses safe food handling practices in the field. The bilingual program has been widely used by the leafy greens industry, and serves as a model for creating uniform standards and practices. Various components of the Food Safety Training Kit were named finalists for “best new food-safety solution” at United Fresh 2012 and 2014.

The Arizona Leafy Greens is a consortium of shippers of Arizona leafy greens produce that have put in place protective controls to ensure the integrity of leafy greens products grown and shipped from Arizona. Arizona's Leafy Greens industry provides 75 percent of the leafy greens produce consumed in the United States and Canada for the months of November through March. The $1 billion industry employs approximately 20,000 workers. Arizona Leafy Greens is comprised of 90 percent of the state's growers and shippers in a volunteer network that enables them to proactively diffuse potential issues through an intricate system of checks and balances. The program is administered by the Arizona Department of Agriculture and closely monitored by USDA-licensed inspectors. More information is at  

Hugh Branch rebrands with new name and logo

The company formerly known as Hugh H. Branch, Inc. recently announced a new trade-facing name, Branch: A Family of Farms and its shortened version, Branch.

The South Bay, FL-based company makes this change in an effort to be more encompassing of its long-withstanding network of famers and tell their rich history. The company wishes to not just call out its founder, Hugh Branch, but also all the farmers that have made up this operation from the beginning.

Many of the Branch farmers have been growing quality produce for over 50 years, with most averaging 25 years of service. It is this family of farms that Branch Farms considers the core of its success.

“As we grow, we want to reposition our company and brand by putting our farmers at the center of everything we do,” said Brett Bergmann, president of Branch. “Our new logo says it all ‘Branch: A Family of Farms.’ We are much more than just one person, we are a family of farmers who all share the common purpose of providing customers with the highest quality vegetables possible.”

It is this rich tradition of family farms that allows Branch to live by their founding principles of integrity, quality, service and a commitment to the industry and the sustainability of the environment since 1957.