Turlock Fruit Company: Farm Fresh Cantaloupes Shipped Right to your Local Grocery Store
Who says that Farmers’ Markets are the only place you can get vine-ripened, hand-picked cantaloupe carefully grown and harvested by family farmers?
Turlock Fruit Company is one of California’s oldest commercial producers of cantaloupe and honeydew melons in the country. They pride themselves on delivering melons that are ripe and ready to eat. Each year the company sells just-picked melons at a farm stand in front of its Turlock, CA headquarters. This year, they’ll also be sold at the Certified Farmers Market at the fairgrounds in Turlock each Saturday. But here’s the good news – you don’t have to come all the way to California for these farm-fresh melons – because Turlock Fruit Company ships these same melons to retail grocery stores around the country.
Turlock Fruit Company, now in its 98th consecutive year of continuous operations, has its home office in the small, but booming, town of Turlock in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley; their farm is an hour south on the “West Side” of Firebaugh in what is considered a prime melon growing area. Their melons are sold under a number of brands, so look for stickers with the labels Peacock (cantaloupes and mixed melons), and King O’ the West, Sycamore, or Regal Oak (honeydews).
“My grandfather was known as Cantaloupe Smith,” says Steve Smith, third generation owner of Turlock Fruit Company, who explains how his grandfather immigrated from England to the U.S. when he was 13 and started out as a melon packer – or “fruit tramp” – as they were once called. Today the descendants of this “fruit tramp” are still involved in the melon business. Turlock Fruit Company truly is a family operation. In addition to Steve Smith, his father Don Smith, now 86, is still a very active member of the company. Steve’s son Alec graduated from Yale in 2006 and joined the family business where he focuses on farming and ranch management; while his son-in-law Neill Callis works mornings on the sales desk and afternoons in the honeydew packing shed coordinating production and sales.
“We grow 95 percent of the melons we sell to our retail and foodservice customers around the country,” says Steve. “We grow, pack and market our crop and this vertical integration allows us to maintain a certain level of quality.”
Turlock Fruit Company also grows cherries, processing tomatoes, asparagus, and almonds, but they’re known for their melons. Steve is a huge advocate of cantaloupe varieties known as “Western Shippers types.” These are the traditional round, straw colored melons with prominent netting and orange-colored flesh. Steve explains that more and more of the cantaloupes you see in the store are something called a “Harper type.” This is particularly true during the winter months when cantaloupes sold in the U.S. are mostly coming from off-shore.
“The western shipper type is just a better melon,” says Steve, who believes they are sweeter and deliver more consistent quality than other varieties. Steve also notes that one of the biggest improvements they’ve seen over their long history in the melon business is the move to packing cantaloupes in the field directly into boxes.
“About 20 years ago almost the entire California cantaloupe industry made the move away from packing melons in a shed to packing them right in the field,” he says. “We like the field-packing method because our whole reputation is based on harvesting ripe, ready-to-eat fruit with full-color and full slip (A term used to describe when a melon is ripe because it slips easily off of its stem.) This gives consumers the best eating experience.”
It must be true. Each summer from August to October, people line up at the Turlock Fruit Company’s farm stand to buy the sweetest, juiciest melons around. And this past Saturday, the lines were long at the Farmer’s Market where three generations of Smith’s – Steve’s wife Kathy, his daughter Hilary Smith Callis and his grandchildren Daniel, 5, and Elin, 2, — were selling cantaloupes like there was no tomorrow.
Fortunately, for all of us, there will be plenty of cantaloupes left tomorrow and for several more weeks as California cantaloupe will be in stores until late September. So, visit your local grocery store and pick up some California cantaloupe today. If it does come from Turlock Fruit Company, feel free to give them a shout. You can find them at www.turlockfruit.com.
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