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Colorado Cantaloupe Farmers Face Uncertain Future

Last fall, a listeria outbreak in cantaloupes traced to a southeastern Colorado farm killed thirty people and sickened dozens more in 28 states. The economic fallout from the tragedy has also been far reaching.

Farms from Colorado to California closed and workers were laid off as consumer demand for melons dropped in half. Now, with the Spring planting season underway, farmers that are still in business are in a desperate attempt to repair their image.

Cantaloupe Culture

The legacy of southeastern Colorado’s first Spanish settlers dots the scorched plains along Highway 50.

East of Pueblo, the sprawl gives way to sleepy little towns like Las Animas, Manzanola and La Junta; “the junction,” along the old Santa Fe Trail, an important trading route, where farmers settled and grew and sold chiles, tomatoes and cantaloupes.

These farms are still the economic lifeline here today.

“I farm with my cousin Glenn, and my Dad, Jerry,” says fourth generation farmer Michael Hirakata, as he walks through his fields. “We’ve been farming in the Rocky Ford area for 95-100 years.”

And for all of that time, it’s been cantaloupes, which Hirakata had begun planting on a recent morning. He walked between carefully laid rows of plastic-covered mounds of dirt. A tractor would soon pass through and plant seeds through them.

“Cantaloupe here is a culture, the local high school in Rocky Ford, their mascot is a meloneer, it’s a melon man,” Hirakata says. “Everybody down here associates with cantaloupe, it’s part of our culture, tradition and family.”

A tradition tarnished by last fall’s listeria outbreak – and revelations that America’s produce industry isn’t heavily regulated.

Joining Forces

So to better protect their way of life, Hirakata and his neighbors are doing something rare even these days. They’re banding together to form a “Rocky Ford Growers Association.” To become a member and certified grower, they agree to independent on-farm safety inspections; inspections that are still voluntary under federal law. The farmers say they’re also taking training and food safety courses.

Hirakata has gone even further, hiring his own food-safety manager.

“Yes it’s a big investment but we want to show that we are committed to providing a good quality, safe product,” Hirakata says.

The contaminated melons were traced to a farm some 90 miles from here, not even technically part of Rocky Ford, but the stigma and economic fallout was still huge.

And some here still harbor bitter feelings toward state officials for not doing more to clarify where the contaminated fruit came from. For his part though, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture, John Salazar, says it’s his top priority to help farmers like Hirakata recover.

“People shouldn’t think that Rocky Ford cantaloupe is contaminated, because it’s not,” Salazar said during an interview at his office in Lakewood. “By growers taking the initial steps to reduce the risk of any incident of this happening ever again, it will show consumers that we are dedicated to food safety.”

Hard Times

The state’s $8 million a year cantaloupe industry is minute compared to corn or beef.

But $8 million dollars goes a long way in rural southeastern Colorado. A severe drought has meant hard times for this corner of the state. And many here will tell you the economic and population boom 150 miles away along the Front Range has come at the expense of this region.

“Cities like Aurora, Colorado Springs and Pueblo have come down here, bought water, dried up thousands of acres of farm land, and that’s had a devastating effect on the rural economy,” says Dr. Mike Bartolo, of Colorado State University.

Bartolo has watched this decline for the past two decades working as a crops specialist in CSU’s extension office housed in a dusty lot on the outskirts of the town of Rocky Ford.

These days his job is less focused on research and more on holding the food safety and handling courses as well as teaching cantaloupe farmers how to market their crops.

Bartolo hopes all this will help the recovery of the farmers. But in the back of his mind, he knows that some will figure cantaloupes are too risky. They may instead opt to plant commodity crops like corn, which are currently fetching high prices.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt there’s going to be a decreased amount of acres,” Bartolo says. “There’s going to be less melons sold, and that’ll have some kind of an impact on this community and the economics here.”

Bartolo figures it could take two or three more years though before those impacts are fully realized.

Uncertain Future

During a recent media tourorganized by CSU and state agriculture officials, Bill Sackett, was more optimistic about that recovery than most.

“That’s why you guys are here,” Sackett said cheerfully as he pulled out a tray of fresh cantaloupe seedlings from the back of his pickup.

He grows them and then sells most at his roadside farm stand along Highway 50 on the outskirts of Rocky Ford. Until last year, the stand did a brisk business.

At 72, Sackett says he’s seen the industry weather other food-safety crisis, and learn from them.

“It kind of woke us up to what we need to do to prevent it,” he says.

Still, farmers like Sackett and his neighbor Michael Hirakata face an uncertain future.

After all, no one knows for sure whether this region’s main customers – shoppers in large Front Range grocery stores – will buy Rocky Ford melons come summer.

For his part, Hirakata says he’s planting his cantaloupes in phases, so there will be several harvests instead of just one big one.

“It’s hard planning right now for what’s going to happen this year,” he says. “That’s why we’re taking baby steps right now.”

Baby steps, that way Hirakata can better shield his farm and business if there is a big drop in demand in the coming months.

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