California and Arizona desert melon growers expect a near-normal start to their cantaloupe and honeydew harvests with good quality and plenty of large sizes.

In early April, Southwest growers thought they might be a week late with the start of melon harvest. Cool winter weather had slowed the crop. But warmer weather hit the region in early spring, speeding up growth of the plants.

"Cantaloupes start the week of May 10 in Coachella," said Chuck Hodges, managing partner at Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif. "It is a normal start. The crop looks good. We had a good set."

Harvest lasts about four weeks, and sizes will be fairly large during the peak of harvest, Hodges said.

"We should peak on 12s and 9s," he said. "The cantaloupes look big. We want to peak on large sizes."

Hodges added that temperatures in Coachella hit near the 100-degree mark during mid-April, and that pushed the crop along.

He said the Coachella prime harvest time falls between the Texas and Arizona harvests.

"We have a nice window before Arizona and after Texas," Hodges said.

Andy Martin, organic produce manager for Pacific International Marketing Inc., Salinas, Calif., said the company's conventional cantaloupe and honeydew melon harvests will begin about May 10 in Brawley, Calif.

Harvest of organic cantaloupes and honeydew melons will start about May 13, also in Brawley, Martin said.

The Texas cantaloupe and honeydew melon harvests are set to start April 29 and run for about four weeks. The Texas harvest started April 26 in 2001, said Mike Martin, a principal with Elmore & Stahl Inc., Pharr, Texas.

The April 29 date is close to normal, so the Texas crop should not overlap too much with Coachella crop, Martin said.

Martin said demand and prices for melons were firming up coming into the week of April 29. As of April 24, half cartons of size 12 cantaloupes out of Central America sold for $13-14 f.o.b., according to the Federal-State Market News Service. Two-thirds cartons of honeydew melons sold for $6.50-7 f.o.b. for size 5 on the same date.

Last year, prices started at fairly high levels as the desert spring season kicked in, then took a tumble.

On May 14, half cartons of size 12 cantaloupes out of Texas commanded $11.75-13.75 f.o.b., according to the Federal-State Market News Service Phoenix office. Two-thirds cartons of size 5 honeydew melons sold for $10-12 f.o.b. on the same date.

By June 4, half cartons of size 12 cantaloupes out of California sold for $4.85-6.85 f.o.b. On the same date, two-thirds cartons of honeydew melons from California sold for $4.35-5.85 f.o.b. for size 5. Prices remained steady for the rest of June.

Going into this season, grower-shippers hope for firmer markets and higher prices through June. They anticipate having good fruit to offer buyers.

"It (crop) looks real good," Martin said. "We have had absolutely perfect weather."

Weather also has been good to the Arizona crop, said Cecil Borboa, production manager for Jasco LLC, Eloy, Ariz. "We are in bloom stage and running about a week ahead of normal," Borboa said.

Borboa said he expects harvest of the Arizona cantaloupe and honeydew crops to begin June 1. "We plant later because we don't want to overlap with Imperial Valley," he said.

Borboa said cantaloupe acreage is down this season, both in Arizona and in Texas. Melon growers have faced tough markets in recent years, and some of the smaller grower-shippers have left the deal, Borboa said.

Nationally, spring cantaloupe acreage has dropped from 33,100 acres in 2000 to about 30,000 acres this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service. Spring honeydew melon acreage has dropped from 7,400 acres in 2000 to 6,100 acres this year.

On the positive side, per capita use of cantaloupe increased from 10.8 pounds in 2000 to 11.2 pounds in 2001 and an anticipated 11 pounds for this year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

Jack Calabrese, owner of The Players Sales Inc., Blythe, Calif., said his acreage is holding about the same this season. Blythe rounds out the desert melon season, and harvest of cantaloupes and honeydew melons should begin between June 5 and June 10, Calabrese said.

Calabrese said the crop looks good so far.