Watermelon marketers are forecasting a strong sales year, with comparatively few winter weather events having gotten in their way.

“Last year was a challenge, but all in all, it turned out OK,” said Art Perry, chief executive officer of George Perry & Sons Inc., Manteca, Calif., which grows seedless watermelons in several regions.

“You can always say it could always be better, but doing the job correctly, it came through OK.”

For awhile, weather problems during the early part of the growing season last year led to a glut during certain times, Perry said.

“We had fruit bunched up,” he said. “Because of the cool weather, it came off at one time. But you have to commend the stores. They did a wonderful job of moving it.”

As of March 22, cartons of size 5s in red-flesh seedless watermelons from Guatemala were priced at $20-20.50, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Size 6s from Guatemala were $21.50. A year earlier, size 6s from Guatemala were $20.The Florida season was shaping up to arrive a bit early this year, said Mark Arney, executive director of the Orlando, Fla.-based National Watermelon Promotion Board.

“We’ve had much better growing conditions than we had last year, when we had a real cold snap,” he said. “This year, it came earlier, so everybody is hoping it continues that way.”

Import numbers were ahead of last year, he said.

“Prices, while not as high as last year, at this point, I think people are reasonably satisfied,” Arney said.

Rick Sullivan, president of William Manis Produce Marketing in Plant City, Fla., agreed that the outlook for the season leading up to Memorial Day will be better than last year.

“Last year, the Memorial Day … market was high and strong,” he said. “This growing season has been much better, so I’d anticipate there will be more melons with a better marketable price.”

Greg Leger, president and partner with Leger & Son Inc., Cordele, Ga., said he anticipated harvesting would begin by April 25.

“It’s going to be early compared to last year, but last year was not normal,” he said.

“We had to replant. But it’s been absolutely perfect this year. We anticipate a good start in late April and get into volume around the first of May.”

Ward Thomas, owner of McAllen, Texas-based Majestic Produce Sales Co., said weather last year complicated the market.

"It worked out good last year until Memorial Day,” he said. “Everybody replanted because of the Florida freezes, and then way too much production came out by Memorial Day, and the melon market was down for awhile.”

He said he anticipates a better market overall this year.

“It’s going to be a little bit different this year, but I don’t really know, he said.

Retail activity will pick up as the spring progresses, said Dan Van Groningen, vice president of Van Groningen & Sons Inc., Manteca.

“Many watermelons are going to do fine during the off-season., but when we get into May, many chains want to get into your conventional seedless watermelon,” he said. “But the mini watermelon is becoming very popular, especially in Japan. We’ve gotten a lot more interest in mini’s, but the quality has to hold up on that ride.”

The cantaloupe and honeydew markets have been brisk, marketing agents said.

“The past few weeks, we saw the demand for honeydews pick up, particularly for smaller sizes,” said Don Johnston, melon program director for Frontera Produce, Edinburg, Texas.

“There’s more of the larger sizes available, and with everything in short supply, that’s where the demand is. And it has been similar on the cantaloupes, as well. The demand has picked up over the last several weeks, and primarily on 12s and 15s — the smaller sizes. The larger sizes have been abundant and they’ve been lagging behind a little bit.

As of March 22, half-carton packages of size 9 cantaloupes from Guatemala were priced at $10-13, and size 12s, $16-17, according to the USDA. Size 9s from Honduras were $11.50; 12s, $14-17; and 15s, $17-18. At the same point in 2010, 9s from Honduras were $20-20.50; and 12s and 15s were $20-23. Size 9s from Guatemala were $18.50; 12s, $20-21; and 15s, $21.

Two-thirds cartons of sizes 5 and 6 honeydews from Guatemala were priced at $16-17; and 8s, $17.50-18. Size 4s from Honduras were $13.50; 6s, $16-18.50; and 8s, $16. A year earlier, 4s from Guatemala were $15; 5s were $18; and 6s were $16.50-18.

Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Produce Co., Nogales, Ariz., said the honeydew market was doing well, but watermelons presented a few challenges.

“It’s hard to get watermelon in winter for some varieties,” he said. “We’re trying to get some varieties that do that. So we’re trying for varieties that maintain that, especially coming from the southern states of Mexico. They’re asking for the right variety all the time.”

Chris Ciruli, partner in Rio Rico, Ariz.-based Ciruli Bros., said his company would start its melon deal in late April, with honeydews coming out of Mexico.

“Typically we should see good production as we go into the first part of May,” he said. “You can write some good ads for that time. You normally see a very reasonable f.o.b. as you compete against watermelons and other melons as a promotable item. And the crops look to be in good shape coming out, after the cold weather we had in Mexico early on.”

Monique McLaws, marketing manager for Dulcinea Farms LLC, Ladera Ranch, Calif., said the honeydew market had been “relatively flat over the past couple of years but is still a large and significant segment in the market.”

Dulcinea has a HoneyBliss trademarked honeydew that can help “bring some excitement to the category,” McLaws said.

The cantaloupe market has been consistently strong, said Michael Warren, president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Central American Produce.

“We’re basically in the middle of our season now,” he said in late March.

“We’re starting the second part of it. It’s grown in Guatemala and Honduras. We’ll be having good supplies through the second week of May. We’re growing the Caribbean Gold there with a big emphasis on the harvest time, and we’re getting a very high flavor profile, with high brix.”