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Juicy fruit

Rocky Ford melon stands lure visitors

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Go on  squeeze the melons. - KATHRYN EASTBURN

To the untrained eye, U.S. Highway 50 east of Pueblo looks like the gates of hell: hot, dry, dusty and bereft of life. But an eye attuned to agriculture might notice the dark green swath of land to the south of the highway, the Pueblo mesa where the Arkansas River runs and truck farmers have grown chiles and melons for generations.

A little farther east, Highway 50 travels through Avondale, a green oasis of cottonwoods and farmland, also nourished by the winding lower Arkansas.

Keep going east through the valley and you'll come upon the quaint, shady villages of Fowler and Manzanola, and finally, Rocky Ford and La Junta, home to one of the world's most famous melons, the Rocky Ford cantaloupe.

Though most weekend travelers in Colorado head for the mountains, a trek to La Junta is well worth the precious gasoline for the abundance of fresh, locally grown produce sold on the sides of the road along the way.

In Manzanola last weekend at Bauserman's Farm Market, a bushel basket -- 25 pounds -- of still-warm, home-grown tomatoes, perfectly ripened yet firm, sold for $16.95. Behind the checkout counter, the precious crop of freshly roasted pine nuts, salted and unsalted, stood ready to be dispensed in half-pound bags.

A four-pound bag of freshly picked green beans, thin and darkly pigmented, went for $3.69, and Rocky Ford melons were 39 cents per pound. Bins were filled with a wide assortment of chili peppers, sweet corn, onions, garlic and squash varieties.

At Bauserman's, and further down the road in Rocky Ford at Smith's Corner, Sackett's and Knapp's Farm Market, people comparison-shopped to pack their baskets and the trunks of their cars with the season's bounty.

Knapp's stands next to one of the family's melon fields where, in the midday heat, workers in brightly colored long-sleeve shirts and straw hats bend over the tangled vines, picking ripe melons. Bright zinnias color the edge of the field magenta, purple and orange. Zinnias are a seed crop, and you can pick up a packet of seed for a dollar at Knapp's, along with locally made cantaloupe honey, or if you prefer, cantaloupe, alfalfa and wildflower honey.

At Sackett's, I found an intriguing jar of earthy-looking cantaloupe preserves, made by Gloria Powers, owner of El Capitan restaurant in Rocky Ford. After tasting them the next morning, rich and faintly scented with what smelled like pumpkin pie spices, I called Powers to ask how she made them.

"I can't tell you that!" she scoffed, then explained that her Rocky Ford cantaloupe preserves are, along with the restaurant, her livelihood.

Every year during the harvest season (approximately July 20 to Aug. 10), Powers buys about 6,000 pounds of melons from a local farmer, turns them into preserves and serves them alongside homemade bread at El Capitan. She also sells them by the jar or the case.

Powers makes watermelon syrup to serve over ice cream during melon season and a cantaloupe-based barbecue sauce for the Arkansas Valley Parade Day and Fair, scheduled this year for Aug. 26. Her preserves have traveled all over the United States and to a few foreign countries, Powers says, but she has stopped shipping them since her husband's death last year.

Don't try making preserves with anything but Rocky Ford melons, she warns. Many of her customers, merchants who come to Rocky Ford from around the world to purchase seed, sample her preserves and take some home with them.

"Mine are pure Rocky Ford fruit," Powers said. "It's a lot of work, but everybody loves them."

To find out what's so special about Rocky Ford melons, grown in this area since the 1870s, I continued east on Highway 50 to La Junta and Gary Shane Farms. One of the valley's largest growers of Rocky Ford melons, Shane dedicates 320 acres to them.

Shane's large warehouse on the side of Highway 194 borders his flat fields, filled this year with fruit. Last year, he says, three hail storms and five inches of rain destroyed his entire crop. This year, despite only a half-inch of rain since April, the crop is thriving.

"Rocky Ford melons are distinct because of what's called the brix index," he explained. "That's the measure of soluble solids and sugar in the juice. Grade 1 cantaloupes have to be at least 9 to 11 percent sugar; California melons are generally about 9 percent. Rocky Fords usually measure 12 to 14 percent."

The high desert altitude, blistering hot days and cool nights combine to create perfect growing conditions for the melons.

"You can try to grow 'em other places," Shane said, "but they don't taste the same."

Shane plants his first field in April and waits about three months for harvest. When the melons are ripe, workers spend 16 hours a day hand picking them from the vine. A tap of the thumb against the spot where the vine adjoins the fruit determines ripeness: if the prickly vine separates easily, the fruit is ready.

The melons are loaded onto huge flatbed trucks -- Shane's workers fill about 25 trucks per day -- then dumped into a water bath inside the warehouse and carried along a conveyor belt to a sorting station, where they are grouped by size and examined for flaws.

The melons travel to another bath, this time a 34-degree solution of water and chlorine, for cooling and disinfecting, then are boxed by hand for transport to Denver and distribution centers across the Midwest. Shane's operation boxes and processes 6,500 boxes a day at the height of the season.

The Rocky Ford melon that shows up in Colorado supermarkets for a short time during August and September is a different creature than the melons sold year-round, generally grown in Central America or Mexico.

"Everything used to be seasonal," Shane said, "and people were glad to get the good stuff when it came. Now, when it's picked green, it's not vine-ripened, it's shipped from Guatemala, it's two weeks old before it gets to the store.

"Our [melons] get to Denver, vine ripe, in one day."

Driving back to Colorado Springs along Highway 50, I made one more stop at Knapp's in Rocky Ford. As I stepped out of the car onto the dirt parking lot, the thick scent of sun-warmed cantaloupe filled the air. I had forgotten to buy some Rocky Ford melons to take home.

Thirty-nine cents a pound. It's a deal.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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