The California Cantaloupe Honest to Goodness Blog is planning a series of posts to introduce cantaloupe lovers to the people who grow their favorite fruit.
When we called cantaloupe farmer Alec Smith, of Turlock Fruit Company in Central California, he picked up the phone and the first thing he said was –“I was just listening to the San Francisco Giant’s baseball game. Lincecum is throwing a no-hitter.” Alec may be one of the only farmers in California to know what that kind of victory feels like. He was recruited to play baseball at Yale and pitched for four years, becoming captain his senior year.
A kid from California pitching for one of the oldest universities in America wasn’t as unusual as Alec’s family’s business was in East coast Ivy League circles. “Growing up in Turlock, everyone knows farmers,” Alec said. “But at Yale , no one had ever met a farmer before. They were surprised. It’s not something people grow up with there.”
His plans while attending Yale didn’t include coming back to the family farm. Economics degree in hand, Alec could have taken the standard fast track to Wall Street — like many of his Yale friends — when he graduated in 2006. Instead, he decided to give the melon fields of California a shot.
His decision to return to the farm continued a four-generation tradition started by his great-grandfather, an English immigrant who came to the United States as a kid, eventually finding work in packing sheds in the Imperial Valley. By 1918, he had started Turlock Fruit Company with his wife, Rose. Somewhere along the line, his talent for growing cantaloupes — no small feat, given how tricky it is to get a good yield on this crop — earned him the nickname “Cantaloupe Smith.”
Things have certainly changed since Cantaloupe Smith’s day; in fact, they’ve changed since Alec joined the company seven years ago. “With the drought in California and the rising cost of water, we’ve had to change; the stakes are higher,” Alec said. “We’ve moved to all drip irrigation.”
Just switching to drip has increased average yields about 30 percent while reducing water usage by 30 percent. It’s also more sustainable and there are other benefits, like it’s an efficient way of delivering fertilizer to the plant, Alec said.
Even with modern updates, Turlock Fruit is still well known for the crop that put it on the map nearly 100 years ago. The company now grows four varieties of cantaloupes throughout the season, including traditional and heirloom varieties.
“It’s part of our program, and it’s something we take pride in,” Alec said. “We’re in an area that grows the best cantaloupes in the world – and the safest.”
California cantaloupes are grown in hot, dry conditions, explained Alec. That combined with new safety precautions, should give consumers confidence in buying California cantaloupes. Following some past food safety incidents associated with cantaloupes grown in other states, California farmers launched a new mandatory food safety program for all cantaloupes grown in the state. Turlock Fruit is participating in a California Cantaloupe Advisory Board program that invites government auditors to inspect the company’s growing, cooling, and shipping to ensure a set of science-based food safety practices are being followed.
“Last-year was the first year of the program,” Alec said. “In my opinion, it’s been a really good thing for the industry. The crews support it, the shippers are committed to it, and it was something that brought the industry together. It really solidified making food safety a top priority with everyone in the operation.”
The high standards of the food safety program have been a boon to the industry, Alec said. “The government audits are announced and unannounced, and all certified handlers are required to be in 100 percent compliance with required food safety practices,” he said. “So you really have to be perfect every single day. It gets everyone on board to do the right thing every day.”
Alec said his focus is on growing to the highest food safety standards, protecting the land for future generations, and delivering the best-tasting cantaloupes possible — a focus that he carries into his other line of work: part ownership of LaMo Café, a downtown Turlock restaurant that his wife, Hillary, and her family own and operate. The LaMo menu takes advantage of California’s fresh ingredients.
You can learn more about the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, its members, food safety program and much more at www.californiacantaloupes.com.