From crisis to best prices for Colorado cantaloupes
While the guilty plea from Colorado cantaloupe growers Eric and Ryan Jensen for food adulteration captures global headlines, growers elsewhere in the state have finished up a very successful campaign. During the Produce Marketing Association's (PMA) Fresh Summit trade fair in New Orleans, www.freshfruitportal.com caught up with Rocky Ford Growers Association president Michael Hirakata, who told of his story of growth from adversity.
Hirakata and his colleagues at family business Hirakata Farms went through "a lot of sleepless nights" in the wake of the listeria outbreak of September, 2011, which killed 33 people, sickened 147 and was linked to Colorado-grown cantaloupes.
"There was a lot of uncertainty of what we were going to do the next year, and this is what we've done our whole lives - I farm with my cousin Glenn Hirakata, and it's what our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers have done, so we had a big decision ahead of us," he said.
"We didn’t know who caused it at the time, but once we did find out we wanted to come together and have one voice. You know that farmers are ery hard-headed, very private, very individual, so what we did was we came together and figured out that together we have more power."
The outbreak turned out to be an impetus for a rapid changes in the company's food safety practices, and for growers in the area through the formation of the association in October, 2011.
Fortunately for Hirakata, his cantaloupe season was 90% finished when the news broke out, giving him the opportunity to plan for the following year.
"We were in the process of upgrading our facility, but instead of doing that facility how we thought it should be done, we had the opportunity to ask experts and scientists what their opinions were; experts in the cantaloupe field, microbiologists, experts in washing systems.
"We didn’t know we were going to grow cantaloupes until February. It was that uncertain. We had a facility to revamp, we had coolers to buy, we had seeds to buy and put in the ground."
The immediate response was to take food safety changes "off the backburner" and make it the top priority, through the appointment of food safety manager Michelle Marquez, and a series of training programs for company employees.
"We thought that to do this the right way, we needed someone who had food safety as their full time job, so they could focus on nothing but food safety," Hirakata said.
"We also trained ourselves, taking several classes of Good Handling Practices (GHPs). We were very proactive."
He said that every member of the association - now including around 15 growers - was required to be trained in GHPs, with significant support from Colorado State University along with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
"We had backing from retail, we actually have backing from the Governor of Colorado John Wright Hickenlooper and we had support from consumers too, so we started building synergy.
"We were making all our decisions but each day it seemed like there was more positive feedback and we wanted to continue on with what we’d done."
He said 2012 was a tough season - running from mid-July to September - as sales were uncertain, and the company cautiously planted fewer cantaloupes than normal.
However, volume actually sold out.
"We did several events where we would actually go meet consumers, taking time out of harvest, to tell them what steps we had taken and let them ask any questions they want.
"It was tough in that aspect, but the people of Colorado really stood behind us and supported our effort."
The executive said that 2013 has been positive and very different, with transparent food safety practices, active promotion and high sugar content in the fruit leading to strong demand.
"Volume is up probably 30% and it's a very open program that we have. Colorado State University comes in and test our facility, and conduct product and line testing.
"Also, the FDA tested us, and we’ve actually had meetings with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to see how we can improve ourselves and what they think, to pick their brains. Five or six years ago we wouldn't have dreamed of that.
"We've never had prices this high, and demand has been exceptional. Our quality has been outstanding, and the sugars have been higher at 15° brix."
So where to from here? Hirakata says he'd like to incorporate more growers in the association and branch out into more varieties of specialty melons.
"Right now we grow an Eastern shipper called a Athena, we have a western shipper called a Holbrook. We grow Honeydews, as well as seeded and seedless watermelons.
"We're looking at a couple of varieties in the works. We have a minidoos (small honeydews) and we're looking maybe at a mini-cantaloupe.
"And of course, we'll keep focusing on food safety and making that a top priority."