(June 9) Temperatures that drove Californians to the beach in March and April also were hastening the development of the Westside melon crop. As a result, cantaloupes, honeydews and watermelons were expected to come on a little earlier than usual.

The earlier start will give grower-shippers a little more selling time, and that’s a rare piece of good news for an industry that has suffered from low markets for several seasons.

At Perez Packing Inc., Firebaugh, Calif., cantaloupe harvesting was expected to begin June 22-25, said president Tom Perez. Harvesting usually starts July 1.

The firm’s volume will be similar to last year’s, and, in the week of June 7 Perez reported that fields looked good and healthy. Shipping should continue until early October.

Prices started out fairly strong last year — about $6 for a 32- to 34-pound carton — and then seesawed through the season hitting a low of $3, he said. Perez was hopeful that prices would be in the $5 to $6 range this season.

On June 8, cantaloupe f.o.b.s out of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys were running $3.35-6.35 for sizes 9 through 15.

Turlock Fruit Co. Inc., Turlock, Calif., will start shipping cantaloupes June 20-25, and honeydews around July 1-4, said Don Smith, partner.

Smith said he expected normal production this year. As of June 9, he said the company had experienced no serious cultural problems, and, though winds were buffeting the area, he did not expect them to have a significant impact on the crop.

Couture Farms, Huron, Calif., has added some cantaloupes this year to ensure that the company has enough product to last the entire season, said Steve Couture, partner. Harvesting should start June 23-26.

The season should get off to a strong start because of extremely warm weather in March, he said. On June 7, the company was experiencing none of the usual cultural problems with its early plantings.

Couture said the company should start shipping honeydews by July 1 and will continue until the end of August. He expected prices for approximately 30-pound cartons of honeydews to be similar to those for cantaloupes.

On June 8, prices for honeydews out of the Imperial and Coachella valleys were $4.35-6.35 for sizes 5 through 8.

Farther south in Edison, Calif., near Bakersfield, Wayde Kirschenman, partner in Kirschenman Enterprises Inc., said the company started shipping watermelons June 7, which is earlier than usual because of some of the hottest temperatures on record in March and April.

He expected California’s Coachella Valley and Imperial Valley crops to finish early this year, which would enhance the Westside deal.

He anticipated good quality watermelons and good sizes — mostly 4s and 5s. Kirschenman will finish shipping in early August, about two weeks earlier than usual.

Pricewise, last year was a profitable one for watermelon growers, Kirschenman said. Prices hovered around 16 cents a pound before the Fourth of July, then dipped to 10-12 cents. He said he would be happy to see a similar situation this season.

On June 8, f.o.b.s out of the Imperial and Coachella valleys were running 6-8 cents per pound for medium red-flesh seeded watermelons. Small seedless types were at 6-8 cents and medium seedless types were at 9-10 cents.

The overall melon deal has been particularly hard hit in recent years.

“The district is losing guys left and right,” said Steve Patricio, partner in Westside Produce, Firebaugh, and chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, Dinuba. There are probably half as many marketers today as there were 10 or 15 years ago, he said.

Things got so bad that Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution LLC, Fresno, Calif., abandoned its summer deal last year and now ships only in the late spring and fall.

As the cantaloupe deal hovered around $4 a carton in late May, Atomic Torosian, managing partner, said, “It’s tough financially to be in it.”

The company started shipping out of the desert June 1, hitting a window before the San Joaquin Valley deal starts late in the month. The firm then will pull out until October. Crown Jewels was expected to ship 450,000 cartons of cantaloupe and 100,000 cartons of honeydew melons in late spring.

Westside’s Patricio listed year-round availability, higher freight costs and increased competition from other growing areas and from other summer fruits among the reasons for the tough melon market.

California had 34,700 acres of cantaloupes last summer, compared to 37,500 in 2002; 12,100 acres of honeydews last year compared to 13,000 in 2002; and 9,300 acres of watermelons, compared to 8,700 the previous year, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service.