Barring an abrupt change in weather patterns, retailers waiting to cash in on westside California cantaloupes and honeydews will have to be patient.
Temperatures, accompanied by rare spring San Joaquin Valley rains, were more than 15 degrees below normal into mid-May. Planting schedules were disrupted and could lead to spotty supplies in late July, grower-shippers said.
Retailers should remember the region enjoyed better than average growing weather in recent years, said Jim Malanca, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Westside Produce Co., Firebaugh, Calif. This year, however, the law of averages caught up with the melon industry.
“We just hope the weather will warm, improve the averages, so that we won’t experience anything that will affect our volume,” he said.
If warmer temperatures don’t arrive in June, retailers may have to be serviced on an as needed basis, Malanca said.
The first plantings of Westside’s cantaloupes and honeydews are scheduled for early July picking, he said
At Legend Produce LLC, picking of the first cantaloupe and honeydew plantings could start about July 4, said Barry Zwillinger, partner. For the first time, Legend will be marketing commercial volumes of a new cantaloupe variety that it has been testing for a few years.
“It has really proven to be a real success for both retail and processing,” Zwillinger said.
Legend will plant about 500 acres of the new variety, more than 20% of the company’s overall cantaloupe acreage, he said.
Ladera Ranch, Calif.-based Dulcinea Farms LLC will feature HoneyBliss, the company’s proprietary honeydew variety, and its Tuscan style cantaloupes, said John McGuigan, vice president of sales and marketing. Picking is scheduled to begin about July 4, he said.
Through Dulcinea’s sustainability program, the company has reduced the amount of corrugated paper used in packaging. Instead, the company is putting stickers on the fruit, said Monique McLaws, marketing manager.
“We use 12 different stickers to communicate product attributes,” she said. “Each sticker has a different message that is fun and catchy.”
Steve Smith, co-owner of Turlock Fruit Co., Turlock, Calif., is not concerned about the inclement spring.
“It’s still early in the game,” he said in mid-May. “If the weather turns and we have a warm June, we can be right on schedule.”
That would translate to first pickings about July 4, he said. As with most other westside grower-shippers, harvesting will continue into early October.
Turlock Fruit, founded 88 years ago by Smith’s grandfather, is still a family operation. His father, Don Smith, remains active in the business, and his son, Alec Smith, now represents the family’s fourth generation at Turlock Fruit.
Fresno, Calif.-based Crown Jewels Marketing LLC is once again marketing cantaloupes and honeydews grown by Perez Packing Inc., Firebaugh, Calif., another longtime California grower-shipper.
“We’ll do the same program as last year with about 3 million cartons of cantaloupes and 500,000 cartons of honeydews,” said Atomic Torosian, managing partner for Crown Jewels.
The first round of plantings should begin coming out of the field right after July 4, he said. Because of chilly, wet weather, the second plantings are of concern to Torosian.
“The second plantings may have some fruit that won’t make it to the table,” he said.
If so, it could mean tight supplies in late July, Torosian said.
Late summer-early fall will be a strong period for Crown Jewels, he said, because Perez Packing plants several late season varieties that ”get a little better color and sugar content,” Torosian said.
Rodney VanBebber, sales manager for Mendota, Calif.-based Pappas & Co., said he also is mildly anxious about possible weather damage to second and third plantings.
“But we still have time to grow out of the issues,” he said.
Overall, the westside’s melon acreage could be down slightly this season, VanBebber said. High prices for tomatoes, corn and cotton have captured more farmland, he said. In addition, the spring weather has delayed the harvest of some grains and postponed some melon planting.
Delmar Farms, Westley, Calif., has among the latest scheduled starts to picking. Delmar, which packs and markets only company grown fruit, is projected to begin picking July 15, said Brian Wright, salesman.
“We always tend to start later and end later that nearly everyone else,” he said.
Delmar has increased its cantaloupe acreage for 2011, while honeydew plantings are about the same as 2010, Wright said.
Another of the late starters is V.H. Azhderian & Co. Inc., Los Banos.
“Last year, we started July 19, and this year looks to be pretty similar,” said Berj Moosekian, general manager.
The spring weather caused only minor problems for the company’s early cantaloupe and honeydew plantings, he said in mid-May, “but I’d like to see the plants further along.”
Azhderian is among the few companies offering organic melons this season. The company expects to have limited supplies of organic cantaloupes and mixed melons, Moosekian said.
Turlock Fruit markets organic cantaloupes and honeydews. They are packed under the Regal Oak and Peacock labels, while the conventionally grown melons get the King O’ the West and Sycamore labels.