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Colorado cantaloupe growers try to spring back

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David Brancaccio: We want to check back now on the economic fallout from a food safety disaster that was in the news some months ago. Last fall, a listeria outbreak — traced to cantaloupes from a Colorado farm — killed 30 people and sickened dozens more in 28 states. Demand for the melons was cut in half, and now as farmers gear up for this year’s cantaloupe season, they are working to repair the melon’s image.

Kirk Siegler of KUNC sent this report from the Rocky Ford cantaloupe region in southeast Colorado.  


Kirk Siegler: For more than a century, farmers have grown cantaloupes along the fertile Arkansas River valley.

Hirakata: Cantaloupe here is almost a culture.

Fourth-generation farmer Michael Hirakata walks between rows of raised dirt covered in plastic.

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

A tradition tarnished by last fall’s listeria outbreak. Beyond the tragedy of the deaths, it led to calls for more regulation. To better protect the local cantaloupe industry, Hirakata and his neighbors, banded together and formed a growers association.

To become a certified member, farmers must agree to safety visits from third party inspectors, something that’s still voluntary under federal law. They also take courses on food safety and handling. Hirakata even hired his own food safety manager.

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

But some farmers think planting cantaloupes will be too risky. Mike Bartolo is a crops specialist with Colorado State University. For example, he says, corn is selling for really high prices right now.

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

This is one of the poorest parts of Colorado. So $8 million in cantaloupe sales every year is a big deal here. Farmers like Michael Hirakata can only hope their strategies will pay off. But no one knows for sure whether shoppers in the region’s large grocery chains will buy Rocky Ford cantaloupe.

Hirakata: It’s hard planning right now for what’s going to happen this year, that’s why we’re taking baby steps right now.

Hirakata is planting in phases so there will be several cantaloupe harvests instead of one big crop. He wants to shield himself if there is a big drop in demand.

In Rocky Ford, Colo., I’m Kirk Siegler for Marketplace.

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