There’s going to be an attempt to save a 120-year old brand in Colorado over the next year or so. It’s not one of those iron brands used in our cattle roundups, but the label for those recently deadly cantaloupes — Rocky Ford.
We do not know how this story is going to end. Will a “world famous,” but local brand live or die? Anyone with an interest in local brands and/or their recovery after a major outbreak of foodborne disease will want to keep an eye on what happens next.
We do know how we got here. Those Colorado cantaloupes from a single farm were responsible for the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in about 90 years.
The Listeria-contaminated melons were packaged and sold as “Sweet Rocky Fords” and before the outbreak, there is no record of anyone having any problem with that. All the labels used by Jensen Farms on more than 1.5 million recalled cantaloupes carried the words “Rocky Fords.”
No surprise that the name Rocky Ford then appeared in a million or so stories about killer cantaloupes. Colorado now has a cantaloupe problem.
State Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar got cantaloupe growers together last week. They were sounding a lot like former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who asked after being acquitted on all counts: “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”
Most Colorado cantaloupe growers are located two counties away from Jensen Farms. Rocky Ford is a town in what the locals call the Lower Arkansas River Valley. This is the area that has grown “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes for the last 120 years.
None of those melons, in this or any season, ever went through the contaminated packing house located about 100 miles further east in Granada, CO.
At the meeting with Salazar, Chuck Hanagan from Swink, just five miles from the town of Rocky Ford, said the Lower Arkansas River cantaloupe growers “want vindication.”
These cantaloupe growers feel as if they’ve been the victims of identify theft. The Lower Arkansas River Valley, in their view, is the only place where true Rocky Ford cantaloupes can be grown.
Conditions there — warm days and cool nights, at an altitude of around 4,000 feet, with soil known as Rocky Ford silty clay loam — produce an “extra fancy” melon with an unusually high sugar content. That’s what put them in demand from late July to late September.
At the center of the real Rocky Ford growing area is the small city of La Junta, which was Colorado’s junction city of the famous Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The fast Chief and Super Chief passenger trains passing through La Junta loaded up on Rocky Ford cantaloupes.
That’s why W. C. Fields came to say something about somebody being “as bald as a Rocky Ford cantaloupe” and stars like Lucile Ball asked for the melons to be served in their dressing rooms. When this local brand’s reputation was built in the 1920s and 1930s, it was the movie stars and oilmen on those fast trains to Los Angeles who helped give it cachet.
As these Colorado cantaloupes became famous, the varieties and precise growing location changed. The 1880s cantaloupes were said to be smaller, about the size of a softball, and white on the inside.
The question now facing Salazar and the growers is whether to, in Mr. Hanagan’s words, “throw our world-famous name in the Dumpster and rename” or vindicate the product.
He says they want to vindicate the brand — a brand with a unfortunate history that now includes 29 deaths, including eight fatalities from nearby areas of Colorado. The Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers pressed Salazar to “get something out to promote us positively.”
Until last year, the Ag Commissioner was the area congressman and being a politician he gave them some words, but not much of a plan, for going forward. Maybe that will come later.
Brands and labels are often meaningless. For example, big egg producers are back in the news this weekend and we all learned in 2010 how all egg packages with different names and identities are more often than not coming off the same line. We are the dummies for standing before a retail counter thinking there is a choice to be made.
But when you do have a brand that means something, you probably should have a plan for saving it.