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Salazar Tours Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Farms

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Kirk Siegler
State Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar toured a Rocky Ford cantaloupe farm in southeast Colorado Thursday.

As spring planting begins this week, Colorado cantaloupe farmers say they’re facing an uncertain market and season ahead. 

Many are still reeling from the economic fall outs of last fall’s deadly listeria outbreak;  traced to a cantaloupe handled in a processing facility near Rocky Ford in southeastern Colorado.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar has said it’s his top priority to help the state’s cantaloupe growers recover.  To that end, he visited a farm outside Rocky Ford Thursday, where the planting  was beginning. 

"This is a region that has kind of been forgotten," Salazar said. "Although Rocky Ford cantaloupe are world renowned, they haven’t ever been really promoted, and this is a great opportunity."

Farmers here are taking a wait and see approach on how many melons they grow.  Others have decided not to grow at all amid concerns that consumer demand might still be low.

"We want to make sure that both sides of the story are heard," Salazar said. "This was an isolated incident that happened on one farm and it tarnished a lot of people."

With the help of Colorado State University, Rocky Ford cantaloupe farmers have banded together to form a cooperative and hire third party food safety inspectors. They’re also taking training courses in safe food handling. 

Currently under federal law, government inspections of farms like this and processing facilities are voluntary, not mandatory. 

The listeria outbreak last year traced to a farm's processing facility near Rocky Ford was the deadliest food borne outbreak in the US in decades.   

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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