Lorna Christie, Produce Marketing Association It was a year ago this month. Cantaloupe from Jensen Farms were linked to listeria killing 33 people.
Jensen marketed cantaloupe under the Rocky Ford brand, even though its operation was located in Holly, Colo., nearly 100 miles from Rocky Ford.
Guilt by association ending up killing confidence in cantaloupe from the actual Rocky Ford region, and sales tanked.
I got a call last October from Michael Hirakata, head of sales at Hirakata Farms, Rocky Ford. Michael was one among many Rocky Ford growers who wasn’t sure there would even be a 2012 cantaloupe season.
We talked about recovery, and how in the produce business recovery relies on strong food safety systems, the strength of relationships and connecting with consumers to tell your story.
This is his story, as told by Michael Hirakata — also president of Rocky Ford Growers Association, formed in 2011 to strengthen and protect the reputation of the now trademarked Rocky Ford Cantaloupe. It’s a story of Hirakata Farms and the association salvaging the 2012 growing season and ensuring sweeter days ahead.
PMA: How has the Rocky Ford Growers Association helped?
Hirakata: It helps the grower and the consumer. Growers have one logo. When consumers see that logo they know it’s a Rocky Ford Cantaloupe and that it’s a safe, quality product.
As growers, we’re all sticking up for each other now. Rather than ‘It’s my farm, I’ll do what I want,’ it’s now what’s better for the whole Rocky Ford area and Rocky Ford Cantaloupe itself.
We’re coming together and trying to help each other out in any way we can.
PMA: What has changed at Hirakata Farms since the outbreak?
Hirakata: We have a renewed focus and investment in food safety and crisis mitigation. We are much more prepared now. We also started connecting with the consumer.
We had to get our name and faces out there. We did meet-and-greets at the store level, the local fair and festivals. We did radio and TV news interviews and some cooking shows.
At our shed, we did tours for people who wanted to see the operation — of course they had to follow all of our food safety rules!
This is all outreach we never did before. We’re farmers, we’re quiet and we don’t like to talk all the time. But we needed to make our operation as transparent as possible. To know your farmer is to know your food.
PMA: What improvements have you made this past year?