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Retail support, increased acreage buoys Rocky Ford cantaloupes

The Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Association is working on parallel tracks to increase acreage dedicated to the signature fruit while at the same time providing consumers with continued assurances that cantaloupes are safe to consume and enjoy this summer.

Additionally, a vote of confidence from a major retailer that carries the fruit gives an indication that consumer confidence is on the rise two years after a widespread Listeria outbreak RockyFord2On May 1, Hirakata Farms held a planting event in Rocky Ford to mark the beginning of its 2013 cantaloupe production season. (Photo courtesy of Mulligan & Co. LLC)was attributed to Colorado-grown cantaloupe.

According to the association, more than 550 acres of cantaloupes have been planted this year. This represents a nearly 40 percent increase in production acreage compared to 2012.

"Last summer, we had the challenge of increasing consumer confidence in our safety, and we continue to upgrade our processes," Michael Hirakata, chairman of the Rocky Ford Growers Association and general manager of Hirakata Farms, told The Produce News.

During 2011, a multi-state outbreak of Listeriosis was linked to whole cantaloupes grown by Colorado producer Jensen Farms. According to the association's website, the trademarked "Rocky Ford Cantaloupe has a perfect safety record for the past 125 years. The cantaloupes that were recalled [in 2011] were not from Rocky Ford but from a farm nearly 100 miles away that used the Rocky Ford name. When you see the Rocky Ford Growers Association sticker, you will know that the cantaloupe has been grown and packaged only by member growers following stringent, national safety procedures."

The association requires that each of its members agree to a risk assessment and/or audit review of their farms. These include audits for Good Agricultural Practices, Good Handling Practices and standards set forth by the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Kris Staaf, director of public affairs for the Safeway Denver Division, said food safety is a top priority.

"Safeway is working closely with local growers to ensure safe, fresh, high-quality product this season," she told The Produce News May 7. "Safeway has worked with the Rocky Ford Growers Association to display their safety Q&A fact sheet as [point-of-sale materials] in our Colorado stores."

Mr. Hirakata said close working relationships with retailers and governmental entities have helped move the cause of food safety forward.

"It is with the support of retailers like Safeway that has helped us get consumer confidence back," he stated. "We have all worked together, from the farmer to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food & Drug Administration and, most important, the consumer."

Interest in locally grown and locally available produce continues to grow, and Safeway works to ensure its consumers will have access to safe, quality produce.

"There is tremendous amount of brand equity in the Colorado Department of Agriculture's 'Colorado Proud' program," Ms. Staaf added. "Customers look for the 'Colorado Proud' logo as they want to support their local farmer or business. Safeway is always looking to add Colorado products to the mix and build on our existing relationships. We have long-term partnerships with growers like Sakata Farms in Brighton, CO. For more than 60 years, we have partnered with this local family to bring fresh, high-quality corn to our Colorado customers. Safeway's in-store produce campaigns include a range of material including locally grown and 'Colorado Proud' reference maps that geographically show the location of key local farmers as well as point-of-sale material that tell the story of Safeway's local farmers. Offering local products is something our customers care deeply about, and we are proud to offer a wide variety of locally grown products throughout the year."

On May 1, tractors began breaking ground for the 2013 cantaloupe crop during a planting event held at Hirakata Farms. The family-owned business has a 126-year spotless safety record with its melons, and the company has been certified under the Global Food Safety Initiative.

This year, all members of the Rocky Ford Growers Association are required to use processing sheds at Hirakata Farms and L&M Cos.

Due to severe drought conditions in Colorado, some producers have opted to cut back on crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans in favor of cantaloupe plantings.

"We are so proud to live in Colorado and provide these delicious melons," Mr. Hirakata said.