Cantaloupe acreage in Colorado’s Rocky Ford region could be down 75% this year, following a 2011 listeria outbreak linked to Granada, Colo.-based Jensen Farms, which claimed the lives of 32 people and sickened at least 146 people in 28 states.
But the creation of a new growers association, and its unanimous decision to hand over third-party audit responsibilities to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, has growers and officials optimistic that Rocky Ford is poised for a rebound.
The department sponsored a media tour April 19 in Rocky Ford, with a field tour and presentations by growers and state officials.
About 1,500 of the 2,000 acres typically in production in Rocky Ford will not be producing cantaloupes this season, said Michael Hirakata, co-owner oo Hirakata Farms, Rocky Ford, and the head of the new association, which he said includes all growers of Rocky Ford cantaloupes.
But John Salazar, Colorado’s agriculture commissioner, said that based on the energy and commitment shown by growers since the listeria outbreak, and on continued retail enthusiasm for the region’s cantaloupes, Rocky Ford won’t be down for long.
“I’m sure it will come back,” Salazar said. “I’m really fired up, the growers are excited, and as a team we’re moving at breakneck speed. We’ll make this area even more famous.”
Growers are working with the state agriculture department and Colorado State University, which has already conducted four educational sessions with growers on traceability, safe handling and other issues. More sessions are planned more in the future, said Mike Bartolo, specialist at the university’s Arkansas Valley Research Center in Rocky Ford.
“In 21 years, I’ve never seen this kind of input from growers,” Bartolo said. “We’ve been amazed by the amount of energy growers have put into learning as much as they possibly can.”
Colorado State University also is ramping up its efforts to communicate directly with consumers about safe handling of cantaloupes through retail point-of-sale, web-based and other materials, Bartolo said.
The centerpiece of the changes are government-based audits. Growers will submit to at least two audits each season, said Tracy Vanderpool, who heads the department’s fruit and vegetable inspection office.
The first audit will be announced at the beginning of the growing season, Vanderpool said, and the other will be unannounced.
“We have 100% buy-in with growers, so I’m excited about it,” he said.
In addition to state audits, the new growers association has endorsed box-level traceability for Rocky Ford cantaloupes, Hirakata said.