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No whitefly, root rot around to mar one of best seasons

June 28, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

HOLTVILLE — Was it a good season for melon growers?

It depends on who you ask.

In around two weeks Imperial Valley honeydew, watermelon and cantaloupe picking crews will shut down for this season, according to county Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Charlotte Murray.

When they do it will bring to a close one of the best melon seasons of the past decade, according to crop adviser Keith Mayberry of the University of California-Imperial County Cooperative Extension.

"Here we are going along and — boom! — you hit one of the best melon growing seasons; no whitefly; no root rot. It's been like a bolt of adrenaline for Valley growers," Mayberry said Tuesday.

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He continued: "It was almost phenomenal; a perfect season. Yields were high, quality was good and buyers bought more because they were getting good quality."

Murray agreed.

"The price was good for almost the whole season," she said.

Among those she said can take credit for the good season: Mexican exporters, Valley farmers and pesticide companies.

"Mexico was bringing fewer melons across so we didn't have the competition," Murray said.

She continued, "Also, (Valley farmers planted) far fewer acres this year so we didn't compete with ourselves."

Finally, "The almost complete lack of whitefly has to be because of pesticides. It looks like the growers and the companies have found the right mix. Chemistry takes some time, you know."

Does this mean next year will be even better for melon growers? Is this the beginning of a melon renaissance?

"No," Murray said. "It's a seasonal deal from year to year. If next year area growers increase the acreage planted it could drive prices down again."

She used last year as an example.

"Our prices were in the toilet almost the entire season," she said.

She thinks this year's good season pulled some growers out of a financial hole but probably won't entice casual melon growers to step up production.

"Melons mean a lot of work and a lost of risk," she said.

Holtville cantaloupe grower John Hawk knows that, but he has a different take on this year's melon season than Murray and Mayberry, although he does acknowledge the year started well.

"It started out as a good year for melons, an excellent year," Hawk said Tuesday.

Then came the "salmonella scare."

In late May the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes from Mexico had been linked to two deaths and numerous illnesses in 14 states from Massachusetts to California.

"The shippers started plugging, the buyers got reluctant to buy — bingo — that's when everyone got cold feet and sales fell way off," Hawk said.

"It hurt all the melons, honeydew and watermelon included. It would have been a banner year, a great year."

Holtville growers were particularly affected by the timing of the FDA's announcement, he said.

"I know a couple of growers on the Northend who made out, but we started shipping right around the time the story broke," Hawk said.

He said the FDA's announcement "tore the heart out of this deal" and "hurt Holtville growers for a good three or four weeks."

Hawk said melon production is another case where the North American Free Trade Agreement has hurt American growers.

"We have double the production costs and it doesn't matter what we do because they (Mexico growers) can ruin you."

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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