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IN SEASON

Melons: How Convenient

July 22, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

It's 105 degrees in the Central Valley and the melon growers are happy.

For them, it's been a long wait. Like so much else in this rain-delayed summer, their harvest is beginning three weeks behind last year's. But, unlike many other farmers, they've got a long season ahead.

Although many harvests are built around narrow three- to four-week windows, the San Joaquin Valley melon harvest runs into October. Let's face it: With temperatures like that, there are not many other crops that will grow in that area during the summer.

"For a lot of melon growers, it's a crop of convenience," says Steve Patricio, president of Westside Produce, a grower-packer-shipper in Firebaugh. "Melons are generally a rotation crop as opposed to being a dominant crop. They're mostly grown by people as their third or fourth crop selection.

"For example, a lot of sugar beet farmers also grow melons. When they've harvested their beets, they plant the melons. It's a short-season crop--it matures in 90 days instead of 150 days. It uses less water than a lot of crops. It provides nutrients back into the soil. There are a lot of benefits."

That explains why so many melons are still grown even though prices for them have been horrible for the last several years.

"If all you had was melons to raise and grow, I don't think there would be many of us left," says Roy Bethel, a partner in ATD Packing, a grower-shipper in Huron.

"I don't think there's a grower-shipper in the business that has not diversified into other crops. Diversification helps because, hopefully, every commodity isn't in the cellar at the same time. The average is that where you lost on one, you make up on the others."

At this point, wholesale prices are fairly high for cantaloupes because it's that pivotal time when the harvest shifts from the Blythe, Calif.,-Yuma, Ariz., area to the Central Valley. Though the south is just about finished, the north hasn't really begun, so there's a shortage.

Expect that to continue until early August. "I think we'll see a big improvement in both quality and quantity the first week of August," Patricio says.

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Farmers' Market Report:

At the Friday market in Venice, summer vegetables such as zucchini, tomatoes and green beans were the order of the day. Tutti Frutti from the Santa Ynez area had yellow and green Romano beans, pale gray round ronde de Nice zucchini, and red and yellow cherry tomatoes. Valdivia Farms from northern San Diego County had dragon's tongue; purple, green Romano and yellow beans; and haricots verts, as well as its usual assortment of tomatoes and squash (including, again, ronde de Nice). Harry's Berries had yellow and red cherry tomatoes, haricots verts and green beans as well as its usual great Seascape and Chandler strawberries (because of the heat, they say the Chandlers will be around for only another week or two).

There was good tree fruit as well. Flora Bella, from the Sequoia area, had Santa Rosa plums and Blenheim apricots, and Tenerelli Farms from Littlerock had June Lady peaches.

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