Importers hope excellent melon quality from Central America can take the edge off lingering effects from a listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupes.

Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based Ayco Farms Inc. began shipping cantaloupes and personal watermelons from Guatemala the week of Nov. 14, said Fran Torigian, the company’s sales manager.

Central American melon deal begins with high qualityGuatemalan honeydews were expected to begin shipping the first week of December, he said.

After a wet start to the Guatemala season, growing conditions turned optimal as harvest neared, Torigian said.

“The quality out of Guatemala is exceptional,” he said.

Plantation, Fla.-based Fresh Quest Inc. received its first shipment of Guatemalan cantaloupes and honeydews Nov. 21, said Lou Kertesz, vice president of sales.

Kertesz said the transition to Central American melons should have consumers excited.

“To have sugars this high this early in the season is a real positive,” he said.

Fruit also will be bigger than late-season melons from California, where size was kept in check by cool weather, Kertesz said.

Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Central American Produce Inc. received its first Guatemalan cantaloupes the week of Nov. 14 and its first honeydews the week of Nov. 21, said Michael Warren, president.

“Quality’s great and sizing is very good,” Warren said.

Demand for watermelons and honeydews has been strong, Torigian said, but the listeria outbreak linked to Colorado-grown cantaloupes as affected demand.

“There is demand, but it’s moderate,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s real significant, but it’s in the background.”

Kertesz hopes the high quality from Central America will give a boost to melon demand in the U.S., but the specter of Jensen Farms still lurks.

“It’s wait and see,” he said. “Most people are telling us sales are down.”

Fresh Quest is encouraging customers to be proactive and remind consumers that the cantaloupes with listeria came from one shipper in one state, Kertesz said.

It remained to be seen how much the listeria outbreak would affect Central American demand, Warren agreed, but as of mid-November, signs were positive.

“Right now demand is good and prices are good, and we look forward to it continuing.”

Prices were in the $11-13 range at the beginning of the Central American deal, Kertesz said. With lighter volumes expected from Central America this year, a continuation of a years-long trend, he hoped the price could hold in the low to mid-teens heading into winter.

On Nov. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $11-12.95 for one-half cartons of cantaloupes 9s from Guatemala, up from $16.95 last year at the same time for Mexican cantaloupes.

Two-third cartons of honeydews 5s from Guatemala were $10.50-11, up from $6-8 last year for Mexican honeydews.

While its U.S. volumes will be down, Fresh Quest expects to ship more melons to Europe this season than last, Kertesz said.  

Ayco expects to begin shipping cantaloupes, honeydews and personal watermelons from Honduras about Dec. 20, Torigian said.

Ayco’s Central American personal watermelon volumes are expected to be up this year, Torigian said. The company’s cantaloupe and honeydew volumes should be similar to last season.

In mid-January, Ayco plans to add large seedless watermelons, yellow honeydews and galia melons to its Honduras mix, Torigian said. The company grew all three varieties on a trial basis last year, and is upgrading to full-scale production this season.

The galia is an orange-flesh melon that is very popular in Europe and starting to gain traction in the U.S., he said.

Fresh Quest expects to begin receiving product from Honduras in mid- to late December, Kertesz said.