Area growers formed the association in 2011 in response to the impact the Jensen Farms outbreak had on the sales of cantaloupe from their region. Jensen's growing operation was about 90 miles from the Rocky Ford region.
“The biggest challenge was the short amount of time we had to get everything done,” Hirakata said.
Courtesy Hirakata FarmsThis assembly sorter is just part of a new $800,000 cantaloupe packing shed at Hirakata Farms where all trademarked Rocky Ford Cantaloupe is required to be packed. In addition to the latest sorting, sanitizing and packing equipment, the shed uses LeafTrack traceability technology with temperature sensing RFID tags to document that the melons are kept at safe, cool temperatures during transportation and distribution.The association researched food safety techniques and Hirakata Farms spent $800,000 on a new packing shed with a LeafTrack traceability system. All association members are required to use the packing shed to help ensure food safety, according to the group’s website.
The LeafTrack system not only provides traceability from seed to consumer, Mulligan said, but it also uses temperature sensing RFID tags to track the temperature of the cantaloupe during distribution.
Hirakata said the association members are responsible for their own distribution and sales. Of the growers in the specific region allowed to use the Rocky Ford trademark on their fruit, all but one are in the association.
“There is one grower who we just haven’t been able to get into contact with,” Hirakata said.
A complete list of the association's grower members is available on the group's website: rockyfordgrowersassociation.com.
According to Hirakata and the association website, the Rocky Ford growing region is defined as Otero County and the part of Crowley County that is south of the Colorado Canal. To label cantaloupe as Rocky Ford, growers must be a member of this association and produce melons within the growing region.
All cantaloupe from association growers that is sent to wholesalers and retailers will carry stickers with the group’s logo so consumers can easily identify true Rocky Ford melons, Hirakata said.
The Food and Drug Administration said last year that melons at Jensen Farms likely were contaminated in the operation’s packinghouse. The FDA concluded that dirty water on a floor and hard-to-clean equipment probably key elements in the listeria contamination because tests of the fields were negative.
The Rocky Ford association growers now pay field workers by the hour, rather than by the number of melons picked, to help improve and encourage their attention to food safety.
The association also adopted stringent food safety protocols that its growers are required to follow. Those procedures are outlined on the website.
Clarification: New information provided to The Packer indicates that only cantaloupe destined for wholesalers and retailers is required to go through the Hirakata packing shed. Association growers who sell their own melons or send them to farmers markets or roadside stands are not required by the association to use the shed or the LeafTrack system.