Colorado's famous Rocky Ford cantaloupe have received a bad rap. Will the Riders for the Brand be able to save the brand or not? The next few months will tell the story.
“Riding for the Brand” is an expression that I borrowed from history, from the days of the “Old West.” The “Brand” was a ranch’s trademark and represented pride, duty, and stewardship, while inspiring loyalty, dedication and cowboy camaraderie. When you rode for the Brand it meant you had signed on for the mission, you had committed, and you were a dedicated team player. Like the Three Musketeers, it was “All for one and one for all.” If you did not feel that way, you had no right being on the ranch’s payroll. For many, the tradition of riding for the brand is still alive and well in the 21st century. The Brand that I am speaking about is not a cattle brand but “Rocky Ford Cantaloupe," a local brand but a brand that is known worldwide. Over the next year, the “Riders for the Brand” are going to try and save their brand.
Unlike the cattle herds of the old western days, our brand is not being threatened by rustlers, summer droughts, winter blizzard, or even tic fever; it is being threatened by an outbreak of Listeria. The cantaloupe from a single Colorado farm was the cause of the worse outbreak of a foodborne illness in the United States in nearly 90 years.
All the Listeria-contaminated melons were packed and sold as “Sweet Rocky Fords.” Before the outbreak, no one had a problem with calling them “Sweet Rocky Fords.” The labels on all the 1.5 million recalled melons carried the label of Jensen Farms; the label read “Rocky Ford.” Almost overnight, the label “Rocky Ford” and “Killer Cantaloupes” appeared juxtaposition in millions of news stories all around the world. Suddenly, Colorado had a cantaloupe problem.
Who is “Riding for the Brand?”
Last week, John Salazar, the Colorado State Agricultural Commissioner called all the cantaloupe growers together for a meeting. Most of the growers came from two counties away from Jensen Farms located in Rocky Ford a small town located in the Lower Arkansas River Valley. The Lower Arkansas River Valley is the area where Rocky Ford Cantaloupes had been grown for the last 120 years.
None of the cantaloupe grown in the Lower Arkansas Valley region had gone through the contaminated packing house located 100 miles east of Rock Ford in the town of Granada, Colorado. Not this growing season or any other growing season
Chuck Hanagan a cantaloupe grower from Swink, Colorado, five miles from Rocky Ford is riding for the Brand. John and the rest of the growers want vindication. They feel as if they were victims of identity theft since their valley is the only place where true Rocky Ford Cantaloupe can be grown. Conditions there -- warm days and cool nights, at an altitude of around 4,000 feet, with soil known as Rocky Ford silty-clay loam -- produce an "extra fancy" melon with unusually high-sugar content. That's what put them in demand from late July to late September.
As the brand became famous the varieties and precise growing location changed. So the growers of the contaminated melons remain undetermined. The question now facing Salazar and the growers is whether to, in Mr. Hanagan's words, "throw our world-famous name in the Dumpster and rename" or vindicate the product.
He says they want to vindicate the brand -- a brand with an unfortunate history that now includes 29 deaths, including eight fatalities from nearby areas of Colorado. The Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers pressed Salazar to "get something out to promote us positively."
Brands and labels are often meaningless. The big egg producers are back in the news this weekend. We all learned in 2010 how all eggs packages with different names, and identities are more often than not coming off the same line. We are the dummies for standing before a retail counter thinking there is a choice to be made.
However, when you do have a brand that means something, you probably should have a plan for saving it.
So what is the plan? Is there a plan to save the brand?
No plan was revealed to the media as of this writing so this is a news story that I will be following closely. I am Riding for the Brand”? How about you?