State of the state: Agriculture

Instead of a bland Tiger or a ho-hum Mustang, Rocky Ford High School is home to the Meloneers, a nod to the area’s production of watermelons, pumpkins and cantaloupes. Especially cantaloupes.

Rocky Ford cantaloupes are among Colorado’s best-known brands. A Colorado Department of Agriculture survey last spring found that 80 percent of Colorado shoppers between ages 25 and 65 were aware of Rocky Ford cantaloupes. Sweetness and flavor of the gourds is enhanced by greater intensity of sunlight at Rocky Ford, 4,200 feet in elevation, relative to other cantaloupe-growing regions. Diurnal temperature swings also enhance sweetness. Daytime temperatures routinely climb above 100, dropping 30 to 40 degrees at night. And it rains little, providing a less fertile environment for pathogens. Instead, water is carefully delivered to the cantaloupes by drip irrigation.

But cantaloupe growers had greater problems than rainy days in 2011. Doctors in August had diagnosed cases of listeriosis, a comparatively rare bacterial disease that has a morality rate of about 20 percent. On Sept. 8, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced that cantaloupes were “very likely” the source of the listeria. Days later, state officials advised people in high-risk groups against eating cantaloupes from the “Rocky Ford growing region.”

Sleep came fitfully to Michael Hirakata. He and his cousin, Glenn, are partners in one of Rocky Ford’s largest cantaloupe growing operations. Their great-grandfather, Tatsunosuke Hirakata, arrived in the Arkansas Valley after working on the railroad. Trains delivered cantaloupes to Eastern markets at first, but in 1972, Michael’s father established a relationship with King Soopers, the grocery chain. Never had there been any problems with food-borne illnesses.

Everything in Hirakata’s life had revolved around cantaloupes. Now, it was all on the line. The phone rang, but Hirakata had no answers. He had never even heard of listeria, the bacteria found in soils. For all he knew, his cantaloupes were the source. “I’d go to sleep at 9 and wake up at 10,” he says. “I’d think and pray and think.”

In time, 33 people died of listeriosis. Altogether, 174 people suffered documented illnesses in 28 states. It was the most deadly food-borne outbreak in at least a quarter century. But the cantaloupe had not come from Rocky Ford. Health officials instead traced the listeria to Jensen Farms, located at Granada, some 80 miles farther down the Arkansas River Valley, near the Kansas border.

The Jensens had been growing cantaloupes for 20 years. The company has 431 “likes” on its Facebook page that promoted “Pesticide Free Sweet Rocky Fords.” But agents from the Food and Drug Administration and state and local agencies that descended on the farm found listeria in 13 of 33 samples. A report from a Congressional committee that includes U.S. Rep. Diane DeGette, D-Denver, found that lack of chlorination in water to wash the cantaloupes and inferior processing equipment both were “probable” ways in which the deadly bacteria was allowed to spread. This was despite a third-party audit conducted at the Jensen Farms operations just days prior to the first outbreak of listeriosis. The audit had given the operations a 96 percent ranking.

“Practices used at Jensen Farms are similar to those used in thousands of other food safety inspections,” said members of the Congressional committee in a January 2012 letter. In Rocky Ford, Hirakata puts it more simply: “It could have happened to anybody.”

But if it might have happened anywhere, Rocky Ford growers realized they had to make changes to protect the equity in their name. Independent by nature and leery of outside eyes, the growers last fall nonetheless coalesced into a new group, the Rocky Ford Growers Association. The 15-member group has attempted to restrict the marketing of cantaloupes to growers immediately around Rocky Ford while elevating controls to maximize quality controls.

Boosted by a first-time-ever $175,000 grant from Colorado’s state government, the growers have boasted of a “125-year spotless record for safety” through multiple outreach efforts, such as a cook-off on Denver’s 16th Street Mall, billboard advertisements in metropolitan Denver and Pueblo during August, and happy-faced blurbs in publications like Westword.

Steps have been taken to ensure that boast of spotless safety isn’t hollow. As a condition of membership, growers have also pledged to follow the best practices recommended by safety experts and improved their knowledge by attending food-safety seminars sponsored by state and federal agencies. Hirakata Farms has added a new position, manager of food safety, to ensure the best-handling practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are followed.

Growers also committed to revised procedures at a new $800,000 processing warehouse located on the property of Hirakata Farms. Chewing gum, seemingly innocuous, is verboten in the facility. The processing facility reflects an enhanced understanding of what is needed to prevent transmittal of salmonella, the most common pathogen, and listeria in the matted, net-like skins of cantaloupes.

Jensen Farms offered tragic examples of what not to do. Colorado growers also consulted their peers in California. “They pick as many in a day as we do all year,” says Hirakata.

Melons at Rocky Ford are picked in early morning, but even then the interior of the gourds can be quite warm, about 85 degrees. On the processing facility at Hirakata Farms, the damaged and blemished melons are culled, the remainders then rinsed with microbial soap, a chlorine oxide and finally rinsed again with soap. Water is tested at least twice daily for microbial quality, and melons are never rinsed in re-circulated water.

Boxed cantaloupes are loaded onto pallets, which are immediately taken to a refrigerated area of 40 degrees. Lingering heat and pooled water are studiously avoided. “Water is our enemy and our friend,” says Michael Hirakata. The cantaloupes picked on a Sunday morning can be at grocery stores in Denver
by Monday.

In this branding effort, growers want to prevent farmers who don’t conform to tightened quality controls from calling their melons Rocky Ford Cantaloupes. The new logo affixed to melons sold by the new growers association is restricted to members.

This begs the question of just how different melons grown at Rocky Ford are from others grown in Pueblo, Holly and elsewhere in the Arkansas Valley. Not much, says Michael Bartolo, a vegetable crops specialist with the Colorado State University Extension Service who is stationed in the Arkansas Valley Research Station at Rocky Ford. “They can grow excellent cantaloupes at Holly. They have the higher swings of day and night (temperatures) there as well.” And, for that matter, the same attributes apply to Palisade and other hot and high-elevation valleys of Colorado, he says. But for cantaloupes, Rocky Ford really is the literal sweet spot.