Unusually warm spring weather has accelerated the growth of melon plantings on California’s Westside, prompting growers and handlers to be upbeat about an early start to the season.

Not only will it allow them to make Fourth of July holiday promotion, but it also could help even out volumes and prices, growers and handlers say.

Rod Rosales, sales director for Devine Organics LLC, Fresno, Calif., said he expected the first cantaloupe from the Westside between June 14-17, about 10 days to two weeks ahead of last season.

In late May, he said the crop looked good except for a little wind damage.

“How that will finish out remains to be seen,” he said.

Because of the anticipated early start, Rosales was working with retailers to put together Fourth of July promotion programs.

Atomic Torosian, managing partner in Crown Jewels Produce, Fresno, Calif., said he also expects an early start to the Westside deal, with a few shipments from the Huron area about June 24-25.

That means West Coast retailers should have plenty of volume to promote for the July Fourth holiday, he said.

“I think it bodes well that we get off to an early start in the season,” Torosian said. “The last two years we were after the Fourth of July.”

Crown Jewels Produce markets for Firebaugh, Calif.-based Perez Farms and its King Crow label.

Torosian said he figured overall cantaloupe acreage could be down about 5%, partly because of tight water supplies and partly because some cantaloupe growers have switched to specialty melons or seedless watermelons.

Jim Malanca, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Westside Produce, Firebaugh, said an early start typically allows for a more orderly market during the season.

“If we get this early start we’re talking about, it usually limits that surge of late-July cantaloupe volume,” Malanca said.

Should volume and prices remain relatively steady, growers are more apt to return to fields several times to pick. In the end, that may mean 50 to 100 more cartons per acre.

“You get to finish the field,” he said. “You’re able to get

all of the melons that are available.”

In years when the market bunches up, some growers may decide to walk away from fields because lower prices don’t justify the harvest costs, Malanca said.

Dulcinea Farms, Ladera Ranch, Calif., began harvesting its PureHeart miniature watermelons and Ruby Bliss full-sized seedless watermelons in near Yuma, Ariz., in late May with good quality for both, general manager John McGuigan said.

The grower-shipper was also ramping up desert harvest of its Tuscan-type cantaloupes in late May and will transition to the Westside in early July.

Depending on the weather, Dulcinea will finish in the San Joaquin Valley in late September or early October, he said.

“We anticipate another active and productive year in the watermelon category for both minis and full-sized seedless,” McGuigan said. “The cantaloupe category is still rebounding, but we see a consistently strong demand for our Tuscan cantaloupes.”

Farther north, Del Mar Farms expects to begin harvest about July 5, the earliest start in the 13 years the Patterson, Calif.-based operation has been growing cantaloupe and honeydew, said Brian Wright, sales manager.

“We kind of embrace it,” he said of the early start. “The problem with a late season is you usually get a condensed marketing window. This way we get another week or so. It just extends the season.”

Wright said the season should run into the first week of November.

Since entering the Westside deal in 2000, Del Mar Farms has increased its cantaloupe acreage about 10% annually, he said.

The melons, which work well as a rotational crop with processing tomatoes, have become one of the operation’s staples.