Al Harrison Co. enters the winter deal with fewer commodities to offer than last year but has backed its core items with investments in new sorting and packing arrangements plus item-level traceability.

“Our new watermelon sorting line will sort for size, weight, shape and internal defects such as hollow heart and bruising,” said Brent Harrison, president of Nogales, Ariz.-based Al Harrison Co. “We will be able to offer our customers a consistent pack.”

The sorting system is portable and will travel to fields and packing houses. It can sort for grades as well, including U.S. No. 1.

“Most people just pack them on a weight-based system to get a uniform pack,” he said. “But we really like a camera-based system that checks for defects because our goal is to have good arrivals, not rejections.”

Watermelons, honeydews and hardshell squash, the company’s traditional strengths, once again are its center of attention.

“Last year we were messing with bells, cucumbers and tomatoes,” Harrison said. “We did a lot of buying and selling. My goal at this point is to focus on our core items and do volume on all of them.”

For packing needs, the grower-shipper is turning to the Mexican side of the border. It’s in the process of putting together a new warehouse for receiving and packing in Nogales, Mexico, Harrison said in mid-October.

“We’ll have new tagging for better traceability down to item level,” he said. “We do case and item. It’s a pain in the butt, but we know we need to go there and cover our customers for their traceability needs.”

In July, the company obtained a Global Food Safety Initiative certification.


Mexico tilts toward contracts

In parts of Mexico, Harrison foresees reduced acreage on watermelons this winter as some growers switch to contract crops.

“In Colima, which was a heavy producing area for watermelon, a lot of those growers switched to sugar cane,” he said. “It’s pretty much a guaranteed crop for them. It’s similar to what we’re seeing in the states.”

“A lot of growers switched to cotton or grains, which were at the all-time highs contractors could get,” Harrison said. “As long as you produce a decent crop you’re making money, where any other row crop is kind of a gamble.”

Melon production in south Mexico could be down this year as much as 25%, he said. Those regions produce the majority of winter melons from late December through March.

It’s an issue for honeydews and other fruits like papaya, as well as watermelon.

“A lot of that land is going to sugar cane,” Harrison said. “There’s a finite amount of growing land in southern Mexico so there’s a lot of competition for it.”