For cantaloupe lovers, Colorado’s Rocky Ford melons are legendary for their sweetness.

Growers say even in the late 1800s, when the crop was still relatively new, Rocky Ford cantaloupes were sought by customers as far away as New York City.

Colorado now ranks fifth in the U.S. for cantaloupe production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service indicate in 2009 a total of 594,000 cwt. of cantaloupes with a total value of about $12.8 million were produced in the state, said Jodi Clark, agricultural statistician in the NASS Colorado field office.

Gary Shane Farms, La Junta, Colo., grows and ships its Famous Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes to retail and wholesale buyers in Denver as well as Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma, said co-owner Gary Shane.

The company is expected to ship about 245,000 boxes of Rocky Ford cantaloupes this season, Shane said. Last year, the company shipped about 150,000 boxes, but production was lower than normal because of hail damage. Shane Farms has been growing cantaloupes since 1992.

Famously sweet

Rocky Ford cantaloupes are known for being sweeter than typical cantaloupes, Shane said. A cantaloupe must have a brix count of at least nine to ship, or 11 to ship as extra fancy, but Shane Farms’ Famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes tend to have brix levels of 12 to 14, he said.

“Normally, our sugar content is 1 to 2 to sometimes 3% higher than other areas’ (cantaloupes),” Shane said.

Because of their reputation as flavorful and sweet, Rocky Ford cantaloupes can sometimes command a higher price.

Shane Farms cantaloupes are expected to be harvested from about July 25 to Sept. 15, with peak production from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1, said Jeff Stedman, quality control and packing shed operations manager.

The melon crops were slow to start because temperatures were lower than normal in the spring, but a hot and abrupt beginning to summer helped the crop catch up to about where it normally would be. Although the area had some severe weather, including hail, most of it occurred before pollination, so there was only leaf damage.

Shane owns the business with his wife, Sharon, who works as office manager. They run it with daughters, Jennifer Shane, who organizes workers’ housing and the traceback system, and Janelle Stedman, who runs the payroll.

Janelle and her husband, Jeff Stedman, started Rocky Ford Melon Co., La Junta, Colo., in 1997 to grow cantaloupes for Shane Farms. Between the two businesses, Shane Farms has 800 to 900 acres of drip-irrigated crops, Shane said.

Last year, about 60 loads of cantaloupesl grown by Rocky Ford Melon Co. were harvested and shipped through Shane Farms, Stedman said. From 50 to 75 loads is a typical volume, he said.

Rocky Ford Melon Co. had 200 acres of cantaloupes last season, but this year it planted only 80 acres. Stedman said the company is reducing cantaloupe production and planting more watermelons.

This is the fifth season Rocky Ford Melon Co. has grown watermelon. Last year, the company shipped 35 loads of mostly seedless watermelon from about 36 acres. This season, it has 60 acres of seedless watermelon.

“We felt like we had room to grow,” Stedman said. “If we’re able to move all the fruit … we may go up again (in acreage).”

By Aug. 15, Rocky Ford Melon Co. watermelons should be in peak production, harvesting three to four loads a day.

Rocky Ford Melon Co.’s main market is in Denver, where it ships seedless and seeded watermelon to retail customers, including Safeway, Stedman said.

Ringer & Son Brokerage Co. Inc., Commerce City, Colo., also handles sales of Rocky Ford Melon’s watermelons and Shane Farms’ Famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes.

Denver is Shane Farms’ primary market, but customers outside of Colorado include Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., Kansas City, Kan., and several small brokers, Stedman said. Other Shane Farms customers include Walmart and Safeway, Shane said.

Shane Farms and Rocky Ford Melon Co. grow onions as a rotation crop, Stedman said. L&M Cos. Inc., Raleigh, N.C., sells the companies’ onions.