Melon supply may be slightly down this season, and shortage of field space is a major reason for that.
“Prices for land are still high. The alfalfa grown in the Westside is some of the best. People are reluctant to plant cantaloupes if they don’t know what sort of money we’ll make on them,” said Jim Malanca, senior vice president and sales manager at Westside Produce, Firebaugh, Calif.
Malanca doesn’t know of any growers that have significantly less melon acreage this year, but he says the issue is still a concern.
“Ground is at a premium,” he said.
“Rising food safety costs and fuel prices can all cause growers to plant something else.”
The success of other crops is significant.
Malanca says grain and other crops can provide growers with a more secure market.
“It’s a better guarantee,” he said.
“With corn and cotton and wheat doing well, it’s put a little cost pressure on the price of ground,” said John McGuigan, general manager for Dulcinea Farms LLC, Ladera Ranch, Calif.
These higher land prices add a slight increase in cost to the deal.
“It’s just something we have to deal with as growers. We’re at the mercy of what the other guy is doing,” McGuigan said.
Atomic Torosian, managing partner and co-owner at Crown Jewels Produce Co., Fresno, Calif., agreed.
“There’s always something competing with you, and most of the cantaloupe growers also grow other things,” he said.
Those growers not only grow additional crops, but they could choose to switch over completely if cantaloupes become less profitable in the future.
These issues all trace back to the consumer, growers agree.
“As far as selling, the challenges all have to deal with consumers. People weren’t sure if chains would buy (cantaloupes),” Malanca said. “The challenge is knowing what the consumer will do, and there’s no answer to that.”
Trouble with demand is likely a lingering result of the listeria scare last fall, and Westside growers are doing what they can to try to build the market back up.
Dulcinea works with key accounts and their consumers at the store level to ensure there are no quality-control or receiving issues.
Torosian believes that continuing to promote the health benefits of cantaloupes could be beneficial.
But most growers agree that assuring customers that products are safe is a key aspect to having a successful year.
“The cantaloupe industry isn’t big enough to do a national advertising campaign like some other commodities could do, but we might do some stuff at store level to say that melons are certified safe,” Malanca said.
McGuigan agrees that providing consumers with a safe product is the main thing the industry can do.
“We’re confident in our product and our customers will be able to communicate with consumers that we trust our product,” he said.