Lorna Christie, Produce Marketing Association
Lorna Christie, Produce Marketing Association

It was a year ago this month. Cantaloupe from Jensen Farms were linked to listeria killing 33 people.

Jensen marketed cantaloupe under the Rocky Ford brand, even though its operation was located in Holly, Colo., nearly 100 miles from Rocky Ford.

Guilt by association ending up killing confidence in cantaloupe from the actual Rocky Ford region, and sales tanked.

I got a call last October from Michael Hirakata, head of sales at Hirakata Farms, Rocky Ford. Michael was one among many Rocky Ford growers who wasn’t sure there would even be a 2012 cantaloupe season.

We talked about recovery, and how in the produce business recovery relies on strong food safety systems, the strength of relationships and connecting with consumers to tell your story.

This is his story, as told by Michael Hirakata — also president of Rocky Ford Growers Association, formed in 2011 to strengthen and protect the reputation of the now trademarked Rocky Ford Cantaloupe. It’s a story of Hirakata Farms and the association salvaging the 2012 growing season and ensuring sweeter days ahead.

PMA: How has the Rocky Ford Growers Association helped?

Hirakata: It helps the grower and the consumer. Growers have one logo. When consumers see that logo they know it’s a Rocky Ford Cantaloupe and that it’s a safe, quality product.

As growers, we’re all sticking up for each other now. Rather than ‘It’s my farm, I’ll do what I want,’ it’s now what’s better for the whole Rocky Ford area and Rocky Ford Cantaloupe itself.

We’re coming together and trying to help each other out in any way we can.

PMA: What has changed at Hirakata Farms since the outbreak?

Hirakata: We have a renewed focus and investment in food safety and crisis mitigation. We are much more prepared now. We also started connecting with the consumer.

We had to get our name and faces out there. We did meet-and-greets at the store level, the local fair and festivals. We did radio and TV news interviews and some cooking shows.

At our shed, we did tours for people who wanted to see the operation — of course they had to follow all of our food safety rules!

This is all outreach we never did before. We’re farmers, we’re quiet and we don’t like to talk all the time. But we needed to make our operation as transparent as possible. To know your farmer is to know your food.

PMA: What improvements have you made this past year?

Hirakata: At Hirakata Farms, we changed the way we washed and the way we cool our melons in our shed operations. We also hired a full-time food safety manager.

As an association, we are writing everything down now. All of our members are making themselves much more transparent and accessible to the consumer. I’ll say it again that one of the major changes has been getting out there and putting a face to our product.

We are all family farms, fourth- and fifth-generation farmers. We want consumers to know that, and know we take great pride in the product we offer them. We feed the same product to our daughters, sons, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas.

The response has been really good. It’s something we have never done before, and it’s hard talking on camera and stuff like that, but it needs to be done so that you get to know me, the guy down the road growing your fruits and vegetables.

PMA: How has your relationship with the retailer changed?

Hirakata: I communicate a lot more with them now. I’m not only talking with the area buyer, but I’m also talking with the produce buyer in the division itself.

Retailers are also asking what audits we have, what we’re planning on doing, if we’re going to get GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) food safety audit, which we did. They want to know what we’re doing to keep up on food safety.

PMA: What do you envision for the year ahead?

Hirakata: We’re going to try to catch our breath a little bit because it’s been a whirlwind. We’ll always be looking for ways to improve our operation at Hirakata Farms and the Rocky Ford Growers Association. Hopefully we’ll have a better volume next year. We’ll also keep promoting and keep getting a safe, quality product out there to the consumer.

PMA: What’s your advice to industry members?

Hirakata: Always tell your side of the story. Tell what you’ve done to upgrade or improve, what you’ve done in the past and what you’re going to do in the future. Always promote for your product, never promote against anybody.

Lorna Christie is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

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