Thanks to warmer temperatures nationwide increasing demand for melons and pushing harvests slightly ahead of schedule, retailers should have plenty of product to promote.

Imports of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew from Mexico and Central America will flow consistently into the U.S. through May, said Lou Kertesz, vice president of sales and marketing for Fresh Quest Inc., Plantation, Fla.

“There’s a huge interest in the melon market now, and demand is exceeding supply, which is good,” Kertesz said, attributing the increase to ideal weather, good volume and quality and the fact that few other commodities are coming in to compete promotionally.

“As palates change as the weather gets warmer, we provide our customers a wide variety of high quality melons,” said Craig Ignatz, vice president of produce and floral merchandising at Giant Eagle Inc., Pittsburgh.

“Melon prices are traditionally lower during the summer, making them a good value to customers.”

Domestic shipments of watermelon began arriving out of Florida in early April, ahead of schedule.

“This is one of the best crops we’ve had in about 15 years. The crops look excellent due to the very mild winter and unseasonably warm temperatures,” said Brian Arrigo, president of Southern Corp. Packers Inc., Immokalee, Fla.

As one of the first with stateside watermelons, Arrigo hoped retail prices would be at the right price to move the anticipated volume.

“We hope it finds a nice level that all of us can live with and everyone can make money on,” he said.

“We need more of those warmer temps up north to move a lot of melons.”

Early domestic cantaloupes will begin to arrive in April from Texas, overlapping the end of the Central American season.

Domestic production picks up in California by early to mid-May, continuing through early to mid-October, said Steve Patricio, president of Firebaugh, Calif.-based Westside Produce and chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, Dinuba.

“Early plantings (in California) were reduced due to the prior year’s losses and the uncertainty and concern over the Colorado events and what marketplace demand would be,” he said.

Cantaloupe rebound

Last fall, the cantaloupe market took a hit after Colorado cantaloupes contaminated with listeria were distributed to 28 states, infecting 146 people and causing at least 32 deaths.

Patricio said that as of late March, consumer buying was only down slightly, roughly 15%.

Even though Colorado is a minor player in the cantaloupe industry, the outbreak had a major impact on the entire industry, hurting growers and retailers as well as decreasing consumer demand and confidence. Yet Patricio and others remained optimistic.

“We’re being told that retailers who are now keeping placement and space of comparable dimensions from a year ago are pleasantly surprised that movement through stores is closer to normal than expected,” Patricio said.

“Retailers initially expected volume to be off, but we’re hearing our customers say that consumer confidence in the product seems to be rebounding well,” said Daren Van Dyke, director of sales and marketing for Five Crowns Marketing in Brawley, Calif.

He expects to begin sourcing cantaloupes from the Imperial Valley May 5.

“We’re very optimistic about how the crop is going to come off because we’ve got pretty ideal weather now.”

Another California grower-shipper agreed with that future outlook.

“Retailers who we’ve talked to say sales (of cantaloupes) are back to normal and they’re optimistic about summer, and that’s a good sign,” said Rodney Van Bebber, sales manager for Pappas & Co., Mendota, Calif.

He said their cantaloupes coming from the southern tip of California look good and should begin shipping at the end of May.

East Coast retailer Giant Eagle promotes melons for the entire summer.

“Whenever possible, we work with regional suppliers to bring our customers the best our region has to offer,” Ignatz said.

Watermelon producers are also feeling optimistic about their crop.

With long-range weather forecasts showing warm and dry weather in early watermelon growing areas, the market should be poised to capitalize.

“This is an earlier season than expected (due to the mild weather conditions),” said Gordon Hunt, director of marketing and communications for the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Orlando, Fla.

“The growers are pleased at how the fruit is setting and the vines look good. At this point, it should be a very good year for retail shoppers if we continue to have good product coming in. This is all good news from a marketing and sales standpoint.”

Matt Solana, vice president of operations for Jackson Farming Co. in Autryville, N.C., said the harvest of seedless watermelons should start in the Sarasota, Fla., region the first week of May and will continue until about June 5. Their acreage is up about a third from last year.

He expected harvest to move to northern Florida by the first of June.

“As hot as it’s been, they might start earlier,” he said.

Solana added that in North Carolina, the first sets of plants started to go in the ground around mid-April.

“We’re hoping it’s a more even season,” he said. “It was a tough deal last year for watermelons. There’s always a feast or famine — weather and market conditions are prevailing.”

The Jalisco region of Mexico will continue to produce seedless watermelons toward the end of April and overlap with the Sonora area, which will go until the end of May, said Ramon Murillo, president of Cactus Melon in Nogales, Ariz.

He said his volume will be consistent.

“There’s going to be a lot of supply and I expect a lot of ads (on watermelons) in retail,” Murillo said.

“(Retailers) need promotions for all this volume they’re going to have.”