Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers face rocky road in legal system

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(Photo: Kristin Kidd)
Photo: Cantaloupe sprayed

Now that fresh melons are hitting store shelves across the state, growers are talking about the changes they’ve made to try to prevent another contamination incident. They’re working just as hard on repairing the fruit’s image.

There's no image problem in Rocky Ford itself and the Arkansas Valley where it sits. Everyone here knows Rocky Ford’s school sports teams are called the “Melloneers," because cantaloupe grown here have been a celebrated delicacy for going on a hundred years.

Mike Hirakata’s family has been farming in the area since 1915. Today he’s showing me the brand new melon washing system he set up two years ago.

“[It’s] basically a set of brushes which will clean the cantaloupe, and then we have a set of rollers. On top of that we have a spray bar that’s spraying water,” he says.

Hirakata is president of the Rocky Ford Growers Association. There’s never been a disease outbreak associated with the the group's produce. The 2011 contamination was traced back to a single farm, 90 miles away.

But Hirakata says even seeing another grower have that kind of problem is unsettling.

“A lot of sleepless nights,” Hirakata recalls. “I never thought it would happen to anybody around here. We always did what we could to keep everything safe. So, it was just kind of a sick-to-your-stomach feeling for that whole time.”

Hirakata says the new equipment is worth the additional investment .

“If we wanted to keep going, we figured we needed to make changes that were for the better for our industry and for the customers,” he says.

Marisa Bunning’s cantaloupes aren’t doing as well, in a shared faculty-student garden at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins.

“I don’t think we’re gonna have much success as cantaloupe growers,” she jokes. “It takes more expertise than what we have.”

Bunning teaches food safety at CSU and is part of the team of that researched the cause of the 2011 listeria outbreak. They’re pretty sure dirty packing equipment started the problem.

But once the bacteria is on the melon’s rind, Bunning says, consumers can spread it with every cut of a knife.

“The knife needs to be washed between cuts,” Bunning says, “just to be assured you’re not causing any cross-contamination from the rind to the flesh.

Washing the rind is a good idea too, says Bunning, but her surveys show fewer than half of the people who buy cantaloupe were doing that.

“And the reason they weren’t is because it already looked clean," she says, "and they weren’t going to be eating the rind. It didn’t occur to them to wash it.”

Farmers are also working on their melon’s image. They know the public’s trust was shaken, so they turned to Diane Mulligan’s public relations firm for help.

“We were able to get the message out about the safety issue," Mulligan says. "Colorado consumers really came back in full force, to start buying."

She’s organizing lots of events across the state that get farmers face time with the public. On a recent summer day, about 40 elementary kids from a Denver 4-H club visited a farm in Rocky Ford and picked their own cantaloupes.

The farmer tells the kids to look for the “golden” ones. They're having a great time poking under leaves in the field looking for the best melons.

Last year, Rocky Ford growers sold everything they planted, but they only planted 20% of a normal crop, due to uncertainty about the market and an ongoing drought. Farmers are planting more this year, but they’re still limited by the lack of water.