Hail took a bite out of Colorado melons

07/31/2014 02:44:00 PM
Mike Hornick

Watermelons and honeydew in Colorado’s Rocky Ford region, expected to start production around Aug. 5, will take a volume hit from the same hailstorm that wreaked havoc on the larger cantaloupe crop.

Out of about 260 acres of watermelons in Rocky Ford, 15 were wiped out by the July 16 storm and another 45 or 50 were heavily damaged, said Michael Hirakata, sales director for Hirakata Farms and chairman of the Rocky Ford Growers Association.

“We don’t grow too many honeydews, but we doubled our acres this year from about 15 to 30,” he said. “We lost two-thirds of the first planting, about 10 to 15 acres. It doesn’t seem like much, but when that’s all you have it hurts. Our honeydews really produce well so we would have to plant a lot to make up the orders. Even losing two acres of honeydews is a big blow to us.”

Cantaloupe, which started production July 21, took the biggest hit – losing 95 acres out of about 600 planted. Still, that’s expected to leave volumes about equal to last year’s pre-expansion numbers.

The affected acreage was spread out among four different plantings, so the maturity of melons varied.

“Some of the damage was to the early cantaloupes, some was to the middle round and some affected the late cantaloupes,” Hirakata said. “All that damage was spread out through the year but it’s still a pretty big hit. It took away all of our expansion ideas. We’re back to where we were last year with acreage.”

Fruit size should be average or a bit larger, Hirakata said, with excellent flavor and good quality.

The hailstorm added insult to injury for plants that had already endured a harsh spring.

“We had a late freeze,” he said. “We had a problem getting the new planted seeds to come up and thrive because the spring was so windy and cold. It’s hard on those little plants to withstand a 50 mph wind every day. We’re very thankful for what we have left.”

“If we can have two or three months of dry weather and it starts raining or snowing in November, that would be perfect,” he said.

Rocky Ford Growers Association is working with Colorado State University and private companies to find ways to get faster results on pathogen tests from facilities or fields, Hirakata said. Growers are also working on plant upgrades.

In-state demand for cantaloupes remains strong, he told The Packer, but melon growers still have work to do to regain market share lost in the 2011 listeria outbreak traced to Holly, Colo.-based Jensen Farms.

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