Incorporating technology and effectively managing costs

With the produce industry in transition from the fields to the grocers’ shelves, incorporating technology and effectively managing costs are essential to assure profitable operations. Technology is helping Mike Horrall at Melon Acres, Inc., Oaktown, Ind., to assure profitable operations. Melon Acres has been growing fresh market fruits and vegetables for more than three decades. Horrall, 48, is continuing the produce-growing operation begun by his father in 1976. Horrall currently grows more than 1,000 acres of produce including cantaloupes, watermelons, sweet corn, cucumbers and asparagus.

Melon Acres has led the way to assure that high-quality produce reaches grocers’ shelves. With the addition of asparagus, Melon Acres is a groundbreaker in the use of a high-tech asparagus grading and sorting machine, and is marketing asparagus through a broker and on its own Web site, www.getfreshasparagus.com.

Production starts out high-tech

Melon Acres maintains a labor camp and works with a labor contractor to supply seasonal laborers from Mexico. “We had installed all of our expensive cooling equipment, and it was sitting idle April, May and June, and we didn’t have work for our seasonal laborers,” Horrall said. He began looking around for a crop to extend the use of equipment and labor beyond the summer season. With the increased popularity of asparagus, Horrall investigated its possibilities and decided to add it to his production.

Horrall said, “I went out to California and saw how they were handling their asparagus. A few asparagus machines are in use, but asparagus is primarily handled on manual grading and sorting lines. They have a large supply of people who are used to working with asparagus and do a good job. They have the same people every year who are experienced in asparagus. It’s harder for us to be sure of getting that.”

With only a few asparagus machines in use in the United States, Horrall traveled to New Zealand to evaluate the asparagus machine where it is manufactured by GeoStel, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Asparagus is a labor-intensive crop, with all planting operations done by hand. Asparagus is started from seeds that must be grown for a year, and the root is then dug up and replanted to grow another two years before harvesting. Horrall started his asparagus crop in 2000. His first asparagus was purchased from Jersey Asparagus, Pittsgrove, N.J. Horrall has grown 50 acres of asparagus, evenly split between Jersey Giant, an early variety developed at Rutgers University, and Jersey Knight, a variety that matures just a bit later, as well as about 10 acres of purple asparagus. He is adding 60 acres of the two Jersey asparagus varieties this year. With his need for the larger supply, he is obtaining the asparagus roots from Ronnie Richter, Decatur, Mich. Horrall said the expectation for asparagus production from the roots is about 15 years.

“When asparagus is ready to harvest, crews walk down the rows and cut spears individually,” Horrall said. “Our spears must be at least 9 inches long.” Each walker carries a basket attached to a belt that holds about 10 pounds. The baskets are emptied into picking lugs that hold about 30 pounds and are pulled through the fields on wagons.

Asparagus is taken to a packing shed where it is washed and hydro-cooled with water trickling over the spears. Then, the asparagus is moved to the trim line where the spears are sorted and graded by computer imaging. The machine cuts the spears and uses camera imaging to sort the asparagus by length and diameter. Asparagus travels down the line to packing stations where it is machine-sorted into 1-pound bundles that are hand-tied.

Photo Courtesy Of Melon Acres, Inc.
Abner Horrall, left, and Mike Horrall display asparagus with a Mol Produce representative.

Forced-air cooling and irrigated growing

Melon Acres was the first area grower to use forced-air cooling of melons. Keeping the melons cool from harvest to the grocers’ shelves provides the quality fruit consumers have come to expect. “For a long time, Indiana was king in melon production,” Horrall said. “Florida and Georgia have gotten better organized and are now hydro-cooling.”

The forced-air cooling system uses air that is pulled across and recirculated. Melon Acres’ system was built by Package Refrigeration System, Jacksonville, Fla. Horrall grows primarily Aphrodite, an eastern cantaloupe variety. “It’s a sutured variety that is well suited to our soil,” he said. “Some cantaloupes don’t get as large as these do. We have three sizes, small, medium and large.”

All crops are grown under irrigation with plastic mulch. Horrall purchases black mulch manufactured by Ginegar through American Plasticulture, Tampa, Fla. Wells provide the irrigation water, and diesel and electric pumps are used. Large distribution lines are vinyl or PVC and are 4 or 6 inches in diameter, depending on the fields. “We do have some sand that gets in, and we have to use screen filters to keep it out of the tape. Some of our wells have iron algae, and we use overhead irrigation in that area, primarily where we grow sweet corn,” Horrall said.

Photo Courtesy Of Jerry Nelson, Purdue University Extension.
Mike Horrall checks the GeoStel asparagus
machine operation.

Melon Acres works with two three-row and a one-row Rain-Flo water wheel transplanters. Horrall grows watermelon and cantaloupe plant starts, but the early variety plants are contract-grown by Cox Farms, Gaston, Ind. Having the early variety contract-grown is more cost-efficient than heating the Melon Acres greenhouse for the early starts. “We provide the seeds that we get from Rispen Seeds, Beecher, Ill.,” Horrall said.

Granular fertilizer is put down and worked into the soil before bed shaping begins. Beds are shaped with two Rain-Flo 2600 machines that shape the beds and lay plastic mulch and drip tape in one application. About the time that cantaloupe plants begin to put out vines and bloom, Horrall does sap tests to check potassium and nitrate levels. Fertilizer is added through the drip irrigation about every three to four weeks until harvest, depending on weather conditions.

Traditional and seedless watermelons are grown, and Melon Acres packs watermelons in bins ready for market. Watermelons are grown in much the same manner as cantaloupes.

“We have to get ahead of Michigan on the cucumbers,” Horrall said. “The first year we had cucumbers, Michigan came in first, and they produce so many, the price goes down.” To provide an earlier harvest, small tunnels are used to cover the cucumber transplants. Small wire hoops are placed over the rows and then covered with an opaque white plastic. “It’s frosted, sort of like a lightbulb appearance,” Horrall said. The white plastic covering is from AEP in Hackensack, N.J.

Photo Courtesy Of Whitney Horrall/Melon Acres, Inc.
The crew begins planting asparagus roots in prepared trenches.

Sweet corn is produced in some of the heavier soil with overhead irrigation. Temptation and Extra Sweet varieties are available by late June. Sweet corn is hydro-cooled and shipped in iced trailers for from-the-field freshness.

Increasing competition

Competition in the $44 billion world produce industry has increased, and year-round availability is becoming the norm. Following World War II, mass marketing supplied the expanding U.S. population. Changing demographics had an impact on consumer demands, and with the advent of product look-up codes (PLU) grocers began collecting information about customers’ buying habits. By the 1990s, targeted marketing gained momentum. The higher number of women in the full-time workforce increased the demand for high-quality variety in convenient forms. More public awareness about the ways that diet helps maintain physical fitness has played a role in the increasing demand.

While California and Florida continue to be the leading produce growers, locally grown produce is gaining popularity. Wal-Mart showcased Melon Acres in its May 2007 Salute to Farmers program that spotlights Wal-Mart’s commitment to purchasing local produce.

“We’re marketing mostly through brokers,” Horrall said. “My dad primarily handled sales, and as he has gotten older and semi retired, he has pulled back.” Abner Horrall, 77, initially grew tomatoes in Bicknell, Ind., before buying land in Oaktown, Ind., and growing primarily melons for many years.

“Things have changed in the industry,” Horrall said. “The market likes produce starting from Florida and moving north. We market most of our melons through Farm Way, Tampa, Fla. We still have some old customers we sell to direct.” Sweet corn is marketed through Rich Siepel, Spicer, Minn., and Greg Heldt, Ashland, Neb. Asparagus is marketed through Mol Produce, Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Melon Acres Web site.

Horrall is secretary-treasurer of the Indiana Vegetable Growers Association. He serves on the board of the National Watermelon Promotion Association and on the executive committee of the Illiana Watermelon Promotion Association.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.