Lakhwinder Randhawa, a melon breeder with Sakata Seed America, checks the Brix level of a Harper melon with a refractometer.
Lakhwinder Randhawa, a melon breeder with Sakata Seed America, checks the Brix level of a Harper melon with a refractometer.

WOODLAND, Calif. — As a melon breeder for Sakata Seed America Inc., Lakhwinder Randhawa has to weigh agronomic traits, such as yield and disease resistance, with consumer traits, such as good flavor.

With the release of a new long shelf-life line of Harper melons, Randhawa said he believes he’s struck a good balance.

“We do work for the growers and retailers, but our main idea is to keep the melon in the market for a long time and to satisfy what consumers demand, which is quality,” he said.

But Morgan Hill, Calif.-based Sakata Seed America isn’t the only company looking at melons that combine sweetness and flavor with a longer shelflife.

St. Louis-based Monsanto also has a line of long shelf-life melons that were originally designed for long transport times from Central and South America to North America during the winter, said Monsanto melon breeder Jeff Mills.

And Syngenta Vegetables, Boise, Idaho, has a line of Western shipper varieties that can please growers, retailers and consumers, said Rod Jorgenson, cucurbit product lead.

All three companies showed off melon lines and vegetable varieties during tours Aug. 14 and 15 at their vegetable seed breeding facilities near Woodland.

Seed firms show off melons with longer shelflifeHarper melons resemble a Western shipper cantaloupe but with finer netting. They also have firmer, less aromatic, flesh.

Before releasing any variety, Sakata put it through a series of taste tests.

Infinite Gold, one of its recent Harper melon releases, scored the best in flavor, Randhawa said.

Sakata’s Harper melon line also has internal pressures of 8-9 pounds compared to 5-6 pounds for traditional Western shippers. In addition, brix runs at least 12 degrees, and retail shelf-life averages about 20 days, depending on cold chain management.

Syngenta has an experimental line of long shelf-life Western shipper varieties, a few of which are nearing release, Jorgenson said. They include Dynamic, Stellar (formerly RML 0630) and RML 0628.

One of the experimental lines was planted on about 1,200 acres in California this year and has generated extensive interest, he said. Already, the company and cooperating grower-shippers have learned that it is better to pick this variety a day early than a day late.

“You’ll get behind these things very fast,” Jorgenson said. “Harvest crews move through these very slowly. You’ll get 450 cartons ideally on the first cutting.”

Instead of harvesting a field up to 15 times, Jorgenson said growers can pick a field only two or three times, saving labor.

If retailers store the melons at proper temperatures, he said a shelf-life of two to three weeks can be expected on top of the seven to 10 days of transport time.

“I think it’s a real good combination for everybody,” Jorgenson said. “Growers can go to two to three harvests. Retailers are going to have something with a lot more shelf-life and the consumer is going to have a much better tasting product. So we look for have some pretty significant excitement in the coming years.”

Monsanto’s melon entry, a charentais variety marketed under the Melorange label, has a shelf life of 30-40 days from the day it was picked, Mills said.

It was originally developed for Central American production, but a few California and Arizona grower shippers also have put in some acreage.

“In the winter months, this is what’s available because this is what fits the growing practices, the distribution chain and the needs of the market,” Mills said.

The diminutive melon has firm, deep orange flesh, high sugars and a pleasant flavor.

One of the challenges with all of these long-shelflife melons is educating growers, harvest crews, retailers and consumers about how to tell mature from immature melons, breeders and product reps said.

With traditional Western shippers, a mature melon will slip, or easily separate, from the vine, leaving a nice, clean indentation similar to an inny belly button.

But if you wait for the long-shelflife melons to slip, they’re over-mature. Instead, they should be harvested as the netting creeps up the stem, but the stem will remain attached.