ROCKY FORD, CO — The 135th annual Watermelon Day at the Arkansas Valley Fair was eclipsed by a statewide declaration of Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Day by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. No one seemed to care, however, as fairgoers were happy to celebrate the recovery of Rocky Ford cantaloupes as they followed the footsteps of the six generations who have lived in this valley by picking up free watermelons. In the resolution declaring Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Day in Colorado, the governor called out the near $1 million local growers have invested in safety since last year’s deadly Listeria outbreak that sickened 147 in 28 states, resulting in as many as 37 deaths. At the center of Saturday’s cantaloupe celebration –held on the historic fairgrounds in the town of Rocky Ford–was John Salazar, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture. While he did not win the cantaloupe-eating contest, Salazar’s spirits could not be diminished Saturday. Salazar told Food Safety News the 2012 crop of Rocky Ford cantaloupes, including those still awaiting harvest, are pre-sold. Gov. Hickenlooper and Salazar met with executives of major grocery chains before the cantaloupe season to enlist them in the campaign to rebuild consumer confidence in a product that got its start in Colorado in about 1888. Salazar, who represented the area in Congress for three terms, sees the 2011 outbreak as a sort of “blessing in disguise.” While they were marketed and sold as “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes, the melons that caused all that sickness and death were grown 100 miles away from these fairgrounds near the Kansas border by Jensen Farms. Nobody had ever thought about protecting the “Rocky Ford” brand before or making the food safety investments the best science was calling for. That’s all changed now, Salazar says. He says the formation of the Rocky Ford Growers Association along with Colorado State University’s bringing its research to the table, and the sate Department of Agriculture’s investment in re-launching the brand and marketing Rocky Ford cantaloupes were all necessary to regaining consumer confidence with a year of the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in a century. The Rocky Ford brand name can now be used only for Otero County and an adjacent growing area in the neighboring county. Cantaloupes from this Rocky Ford growing area have “a perfect safety record for 125 years.” Saturday’s celebration of Rocky Ford cantaloupes included the enthusiastic participation of Rick Ritter, director of the Otero County Health Department, who says the 2012 crop tastes better than any in memory. Ritter said at the health department, he ordinarily would not advise people to ‘gorge” on something, but an exception needs to be made for the cantaloupe-eating contest. He did not win either. The cantaloupe-eating contest took its place alongside the watermelon seed-spitting contest–you need to be able to spit about 35 feet to be among the winners– and a melon-carving contest. Contests are just entertainment for those in line for the free watermelons, which were distributed beginning at a 11 a.m. with the magic words: “The pile is open.” For the town of 4,300, it does not get any better for them or their melons. Photo: John Salazar, Commissioner, Colorado Department of Agriculture