Westside melon growers have enjoyed mild weather through early June and the expectation is for a smooth transition with steady supplies. ( Courtesy Farmers Communication Exchange LLC )

Consistent supplies and an expected smooth transition between Western desert and Westside melon districts should set the stage for good promotion opportunities this year.

“I think we have ideal conditions for quality this spring,” said Steve Smith, co-owner of Turlock Fruit Co. Inc., Turlock, Calif. Speaking in early June, he said high temperatures for melon fields have consistently been in the low 90s and the lows have been in the mid-60s, which he called ideal.

“Fields look better early than they have in years,” he said.

Harvest may start June 25-28, which he said was about a week earlier than a year ago.

Honeydew and cantaloupe harvest will begin June 26-28, he said.

Westside melon growers have enjoyed mild weather through early June, said Tom Turini, University of California vegetable crops advisor for Fresno County.

“We haven’t had any major issues, and acreage seems to be similar to last year,” he said.

He said the irrigated water situation is stable for San Joaquin Valley growers, with sufficient rains last year to restore reservoir levels, which even now are much higher than three years ago.

With the greater availability of water, he said there has been a reduction in fallow ground in the San Joaquin Valley compared with several years ago.

Growth in organic melon shipments has been substantial, at least in comparison with several years ago, Turini said.

The transition between the desert and the Westside districts is expected to be smoother than a year ago, with no gap in supply anticipated, said Garrett Patricio, chief operating officer for Westside Produce Inc., Firebaugh, Calif.

Patricio thinks harvest in Arizona began a little later than normal, and the same will be true for Westside harvest, he said, which will gear up after July Fourth after a light start in late June.

“Desert fruit will carry us through the Fourth of July holiday, and then I think the Westside will get rolling,” he said.

Growing conditions through early June were favorable, he said. Shippers will be in good position to fill post-July Fourth demand.

Industry-wide acreage this year may be similar in 2018, he said.

Last year saw reduced volume and stronger prices for conventional and organic California cantaloupe compared with 2016.

Patricio said the transition between the desert and Westside melon deals was rocky last year, with f.o.b. pricing rising to more than $15 per carton in July.

Shippers weren’t able to commit to ads, and movement slowed in response, he said.

Supply from local deals in Canada and other states slowed movement, he said, with some growers leaving melons in the field rather than harvesting when the f.o.b. was low.

Patricio said decreased shipments may have had more to do with market conditions than anything else.

This year, the prospect of more consistent supplies to begin the deal could moderate the ups and downs, he said.

“As long as we don’t have the extreme highs, I think we can eliminate the extreme lows,” he said.


Retail volume

2017 retail sales of all melons, according to the United Fresh Produce Association’s FreshFacts report, indicated volume and sales declines for melons, while average prices were up moderately.

According to FreshFacts, 57% of households purchased melons in 2017. Weekly dollar sales of melons per retail store were pegged at $1,156, down 6.4% compared with 2016.

Volume of all melons sold at retail, according to FreshFacts, was off 8.7% compared with 2016 and average price for melons was up 2.6%.


Cantaloupe pricing trends

According to statistics from U.S. Department of Agriculture Market News Service, the average shipping point price for California conventional cantaloupe in 2017 was $10.10 per carton, up from $7.80 per carton in 2016 and up from $9.51 per carton in 2015.

Early season prices were especially stronger.

On July 6 last year, the average price per carton for cantaloupe from the San Joaquin Valley was $19-20 per carton, compared with $6.50-9 per carton the same day in 2016.

By Aug. 9, when local deals in the East and Canada were active and suppressing Western demand, the f.o.b. for California San Joaquin Valley cantaloupe was $5-7 per carton, according to the USDA.

For organic California cantaloupe, the USDA said the average shipping point price in 2017 was $13.90 per carton, up from $11.41 per carton in 2016, but off from $14.60 in 2015.


Reduced shipments

Shipment figures from the USDA showed California conventional cantaloupe shipments from California’s San Joaquin Valley totaled 14.82 million pound cartons, compared with 2.55 million cartons from the California’s Imperial Valley and 407,000 cartons from California’s Palo Verde Valley.

That was down from 2016, when the USDA reported conventional shipments of California cantaloupe at 18.74 million cartons from the San Joaquin Valley, 4.09 million from California’s Imperial Valley, and 431,750 cartons from California’s Palo Verde Valley.

According to the USDA, conventional shipments of cantaloupe from the San Joaquin Valley in 2017 were 21% below 2016 levels and combined conventional cantaloupe shipments from all districts of 17.77 million cartons were off 24% from 23.26 million cartons in 2016.

On the other hand, organic cantaloupe shipments showed mixed trends in 2017, with San Joaquin Valley organic volume up in 2017 and Imperial Valley organic cantaloupe shipments down compared with 2016.

The USDA rated 2017 California organic cantaloupe shipments at 406,000 cartons from San Joaquin Valley, compared with 205,000 cartons from Imperial Valley.

Organic shipments in 2016 from San Joaquin Valley were rated at 396,500 cartons, compared with 337,500 cartons from Imperial Valley.


Future trends

In general, growers are shifting away from the western shippers type of cantaloupe and moving toward the long shelf-life harper-type varieties, Turini said.

One of the issues that’s driving the change in variety is the issue of labor and the desire to get through the fields with one or two passes compared with multiple passes for western shipper so-called slip-skin cantaloupes. Growers are working through quality issues, primarily determining when the melon has the right maturity to harvest.

However, he said long shelf life varieties are improving every year.

Water and labor will be big drivers for future trends for Westside melons, Turini said, and are likely to continue to drive adaption of long shelf-life varieties.