Melons like it hot, but the lack of high temperatures in California’s Central Valley this spring will probably mean a later start than usual to the Westside cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew season.
Cooler than normal weather and above-average rainfall in May in the San Joaquin Valley delayed planting schedules, growers say, while the lack of 85-plus degree days has kept many melons from popping.
Josh Leichter, general manager of Los Angeles-based Pacific Trellis, parent of Dulcinea Farms, said harvesting of its Tuscan-style cantaloupes, mini seedless watermelons and regular sized seedless watermelons is expected to begin around July 8-10 and finish in late September to October.
“For us, that’s (starting) seven to 10 days later than normal,” Leichter said. “We usually plan for around the first (of July), but the weather is pushing us back a bit.”
Supply will be up this season on Pacific Trellis’s top seller, the PureHeart conventional and organic mini seedless watermelon, he added, and down a bit on its Tuscan-style cantaloupe and SunnyGold yellow-flesh watermelon as part of the company’s “right-sizing.”
“Our business model is we grow as much as possible for the programmed business we have with our primary customers, and try to stay out of the spot market as much as possible,” Leichter said.
An unseasonably warm March and April made Turlock Fruit Co. Inc., Turlock, Calif., initially expect an early harvest of its honeydews, orangedews, cantaloupes and varietal melons of around June 20, co-owner Steve Smith said.
But temperatures more recently dropped for about two weeks, he said, slowing melon growth to almost a standstill.
“Now this unseasonably cool weather may set it back to more like first of July — a more normal start time,” Smith said.
Acreage and supply will be about the same as last year for all fruit except for the orangedew, a honeydew with orange flesh, which will get increased acreage.
Smith is also continuing to grow a western shipper variety of cantaloupe to differentiate himself from longer-self-life varieties that most of the Westside cantaloupe industry produces, he said.
Legend Produce, Dos Palos, Calif., also expects to start harvesting its origami and other cantaloupe varieties late, said partner Barry Zwillinger.
Because of the cooler weather, he expects to harvest between the first and second week of July, with the season lasting until Oct. 10 before it picks up in Yuma, Ariz.
Between the two regions, Zwillinger anticipates Legend producing more than seven million cartons this year, consistent with prior years.
In contrast, cantaloupe crops could arrive early this year — June 25 — rather than the typical July 1 or so for Firebaugh, Calif.-based Westside Produce, said chief operating officer Garrett Patricio. Warmer temperatures in March enabled earlier plantings.
“As of a few days ago, we had blooms setting in,” Patricio said. “All of our early plantings have looked very good. They haven’t been terribly impacted by the weather.”
The season usually lasts for about 16 weeks, he said.
PRICE AND SUPPLY
Patricio typically grows 2,500 acres for the Westside summer deal, but he’s joining other cantaloupe growers who say they will cut acreage slightly to avoid an oversupply that may have contributed to low prices last year. He will likely pack 2 million to 2.2 million boxes, Patricio said.
He thinks other factors may have pushed prices down, such as robust supplies in other cantaloupe states, and declining demand. Freight also was expensive.
“Almost our entire season, we sold fruit for less than the price of the freight,” Patricio said.
He saw prices industrywide sink below the industry average combined growing and packing costs.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018 f.o.b. prices for Westside cantaloupes were $6-7.50 for a half-carton on June 30; $4-6 on July 28; $4.50-6 on Aug. 25, and $5-8.50 on Sept. 29. By Oct. 27, prices were $8.95-11.95, depending on fruit size.
The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, Dinuba, expects production of about 20 million cartons this year, about even with previous years, said manager John Gilstrap.
Cantaloupes, honeydews and watermelons will probably also start early this year for Patterson, Calif.-based Del Mar Farms, said Heriberto Hernandez, who handles sales.
Cantaloupes, which account for about two-thirds of the business, will likely begin harvesting between the last week of June and first week of July compared to their normal start around the Fourth of July. Supplies will be down slightly, but watermelon will be up, he added, and will likely start the second week in July.
Organic melons will harvest in mid-July and finish up in early October, while conventional melons should be available through October to maybe early November, Hernandez said.
Tom Conrado, vice president of West Coast sales and business development for Fresno-based Classic Fruit Co. Inc./ATB Packing Co., said honeydews and cantaloupes should begin the last week of June and last through early to mid-October.
Honeydew quantities will be about the same as last year; cantaloupe will be down slightly.
“Fields look really good; we haven’t had any major weather events that have affected anything in the field,” Conrado said.