Rocky Ford takes brunt of listeria scare: 'It wasn't our product'

September 17, 2011
photo - Many of the melons grown by Eric Hanagan of Hanagan Farm will go unharvested. His business has been impacted, because of listeria found on melons from Jensen Farm nearly 90 miles away.  Photo by JERILEE BENNETT/The Gazette
Many of the melons grown by Eric Hanagan of Hanagan Farm will go unharvested. His business has been impacted, because of listeria found on melons from Jensen Farm nearly 90 miles away. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT/The Gazette 

OTERO COUNTY, Colo. -- The cavernous shed on Eric Hanagan’s property in Swink holds the bounty of a recent harvest from the sprawling fields nearby: bins of brilliant yellow and orange squashes; boxes of vine-ripened tomatoes; vats of watermelon; and sacks of green chiles.

Noticeably absent are the musky, orange-tinged melons that are the crown jewel of this agricultural area along the Arkansas Valley. Instead, he’s letting the last of his Rocky Ford cantaloupes languish in the fields.

“Why pick ‘em?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ll just have to throw them out in a few days.”

In most years, consumers swoon over the super-sweet Rocky Ford melons, snapping them up at farmers markets, roadside stands and grocery stores. But this year, a listeria outbreak has put a chill on the hot commodity, and even though the source of contamination was traced to cantaloupes grown on a farm near the Colorado-Kansas border two counties away, farmers in and around the town of Rocky Ford  say they’ve been hurt by reports that “their” cantaloupes are the culprit.

“It wasn’t us. It wasn’t our product. It wasn’t our area,” says Chuck Hanagan, Eric’s brother and executive director of the Farm Service Agency office in Rocky Ford.

But when a much-heralded melon and a town share  a name, the bad is bound to come with the good.

Unprotected fame

There is no question that the cantaloupe is the most famous crop in the Otero County town of Rocky Ford. A sign at the edge of town welcomes you to the “Sweet Melon Capital.” Rocky Ford High School students are the Meloneers. National Public Radio did a report a few years ago on the small town with “some of the sweetest cantaloupe in the world.” One publication said the Rocky Ford melons are “legendary.”

The problem is, there’s not an actual “Rocky Ford” melon variety. What’s grown in Rocky Ford and neighboring towns are hybrids, like the Athena melons growing at Hanagan’s farm.

And since the Rocky Ford name is not trademarked and there are no rules regulating where cantaloupes using that brand can be grown, someone in Colorado Springs could plant melons in a backyard plot and call them “Rocky Fords.”

“We probably should have gotten together years ago as producers and trademarked the name,” says Chuck Hanagan. “But we’re not lawyers; we’re farmers.”

And so, Jensen Farms in Holly, an hour and a half east of the Hanagan farm, was free to call its melons “Rocky Fords.” And when public health officials declared that Jensen Farms’ melons were the source of the listeria outbreak,  every cantaloupe grown in and around the town of Rocky Ford became suspect.

“The thing that drove it home to me was, on the national news, they held up a cantaloupe and said, ‘this came from the Rocky Ford growing region.’ No, it didn’t,” says Julie Worley, director of the Rocky Ford Office of Economic Development. “It came from 80 miles east of here.”

‘Listeria hysteria’

Many farmers in Otero County feel burned, not only by the persistent referral to “Rocky Ford” melons as the source of the contamination, but by public health officials’ announcing that cantaloupes from the region were to blame before they’d homed in on Jensen Farms.

“I call it ‘listeria hysteria,’” said Kent Lusk, a fifth-generation farmer and owner of Lusk Farms. “They’ve made us guilty without a trial.”

Now, farmers and others who work in the area’s agricultural industry are scrambling to rebuild the Rocky Ford reputation, but they say the damage has been done and could take awhile to repair. Chuck Hanagan, who sells cantaloupes at the Bancroft Park Farmers Market in Colorado Springs on Saturdays, recently ended up with leftovers.

“I never bring cantaloupes home from the market,” he says.

And it’s not just cantaloupes taking a hit. It seems any produce labeled “Rocky Ford” is ripe for a black eye. Lusk says he’s had grocery stores cut off watermelon orders, and Eric Hanagan points to an empty parking lot usually filled with people coming to pick their own produce from his fields.

“It’s hard to sell anything associated with Rocky Ford,” Hanagan says. “It’s just a stigma now. They associate anything with Rocky Ford as not being safe at this time.”

But they all note that not one case of listeria has been reported in the Rocky Ford area, or anywhere along the Arkansas Valley, for that matter. All of the Colorado cases have been from El Paso County north, along the Front Range.

“My family, my friends, my workers eat it all day. We don’t even wash it in the fields. You cut it open and you eat it,” Eric Hanagan says. “Why is no one sick down here? I’m not going to sell anything I wouldn’t give to my own family.”

In a show of solidarity, residents in the Rocky Ford area are supporting the farmers. Locals are buying armfuls of cantaloupes, Lusk said, and some people seem almost defiant in their response.

“I’m not afraid of them at all. In fact, I’m on my way to stop off and get a few,” Fowler resident Dorothy Sallee said as she finished lunch at a Mexican restaurant.

High stakes

The stakes for the area’s economy are high. Last year, 2,200 acres of cantaloupe was harvested in Colorado, most of it in the Rocky Ford area, for a total value of $8 million, according to the state Agriculture Department. Farmers have taken some heart that the outbreak and its aftermath occurred toward the end of the cantaloupe season.

Still, they worry about the long-term.

“It’s devastating, because it not only impacts us for this week or the rest of the cantaloupe season,” Worley says. “It could affect us next year when the markets open again.”

Just about the time the listeria headlines were breaking, Worley had proposed to Rocky Ford’s city manager that something be done to protect and regulate the name as it pertains to cantaloupes, much as the Vidalia name is regulated for onion growing in Georgia.

“It’s like copyrighting a name. You can say that in order to be called Vidalia, you hae to be grown in county a, b and c,” says Mike Bartolo, a Colorado State University vegetable crop specialist who works at the CSU Extension Research Facility in Otero County.

It may be worth the effort. Bartolo says that growing conditions around Rocky Ford cannot be duplicated anywhere. The hot days, cool nights and soil combine to create the melons’ signature sweetness.

“So it’s been an iconic, integral part of the culture,” Bartolo says. “It’s more than a crop; it’s an identity.”

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