Melon production is heading west, from Yuma, Ariz., in May to California.
The Bakersfield, Calif., deal is expected to start in mid-June with watermelons and honeydews, while Westside production on all melons kicks in around July 4.
Westside growers are spread along the state’s Interstate 5 corridor from Huron in the south through Mendota and Firebaugh to Los Banos and Gustine in the north.
Cantaloupe acreage is estimated to be down up to 25% in the Westside, Bakersfield and Imperial Valley deals, though some growers planted as much as last year. The foodborne illness outbreak in Colorado cantaloupes had much to do with that, but other factors contributed.
“There’s still a bit of uncertainty with retailers about how cantaloupes will move,” said Danny Andrews, owner of Bakersfield-based Dan Andrews Farms. “Sales remained off in winter from historic numbers. It’s not always going to be this way. Once it’s summertime, consumers will want to buy fruit. But in May, there’s still going to be some question whether shoppers will choose a cantaloupe before they choose another fruit. We’re just not sure.”
“The last 12 months have been rough for melons,” said Atomic Torosian, managing partner in Fresno, Calif.-based Crown Jewels Produce. “Growers could still change their minds, but you’ll see 15% less acreage on the Westside, maybe more.”
The main reason, as Torosian sees it, is California’s dry winter.
“We’re barely at 50% of normal rainfall,” he said March 21. “And a lot of growers have other options. There are competing crops with more of a guarantee — wheat, cotton or whatever.”
Crown Jewels Produce is representing Firebaugh, Calif.-based Perez Packing Inc. melons for a fourth year, and sources melons from other regions as well. The Westside deal runs through October, weather permitting, before returning to the desert — Blythe, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz.
Summer honeydew acreage, Torosian said, will equal last year’s or rise a few points.
“It’s steady on watermelons and honeydews,” Andrews said.
But late-March rains raised the possibility of a late start. “Another inch and we could need to replant,” he said.
Early on, watermelons showed signs of weather-related uneven maturity.
“Guys are still evaluating, and sometimes they spot replant,” Andrews said. “Everybody should get one pick off in June and a second in July.”
Like their counterparts elsewhere, California cantaloupe growers have increased their food safety efforts since the Colorado outbreak.
“Everyone’s implementing more stringent food safety practices from harvest to cooling to reassure the consumer the fruit is safe,” Andrews said. “But the real change is postharvest.”
That new focus is on the prospect of pathogens lingering on equipment surfaces.
“We’ll all have to increase our sanitation practices at our cold storage facilities,” Andrews said. “In the past it was the preseason checks and weekly programs. Now it’s going to be daily checks and daily cleanings.
“The farming side, we’ve done for several years. The new efforts are to continue food safety all the way to loading the truck. Even our forklifts need to be washed more often than in past practice. The trend is to rewrite your sanitation program.”