Califonia Bountiful

Summertime is melon time

July/August 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Family farm grows traditional and specialty varieties

Maria Gloria, left, and Joe Del Bosque operate Del Bosque Farms with family members including daughters Krystal and Stephanie. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

No matter how you slice it, few things beat the summertime heat like a great-tasting melon.

"I think people just get some joy in eating a fresh piece of fruit that's really good," said Fresno County farmer Joe Del Bosque, who operates Del Bosque Farms with his wife, Maria Gloria, two daughters and a son-in-law.

"I eat melons all the time through the season. They pick me up when I'm feeling a little bit of pressure or a little bit down; I'll eat a cantaloupe and it makes me feel better, it really does," he said.

Del Bosque's parents and family settled on the San Joaquin Valley's west side after emigrating from Mexico and years of migrant farm work. During the 1940s and 1950s, they worked for companies farming melons in the state's primary melon-growing regions: the Westside and the Imperial Valley. The two areas, which are ideal for growing melons because of hot, dry temperatures and productive soils, produce about 75% of the nation's commercially grown melons.

Cantaloupes are one of several melon varieties grown by Fresno County-based Del Bosque Farms. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

"At a very young age, I was out on the farm working with my father. I worked every summer on the farm and learned a lot about melons," Del Bosque said, adding that he returned to the family farm after college and later decided to start his own business. "I got a hankering to go out and do my own farming and in 1985, I left my job and with almost no money, got into farming."

Now, Del Bosque Farms is one of the largest organic melon growers in the country. Each June through October, the farm grows, harvests and ships cantaloupes, honeydews, Galias and watermelons to supermarket companies across the country and in Canada.

Melons are packed in the field and transported to cold storage, where they are chilled before shipping. In addition to the Westside harvest between June and October, melons in the desert are harvested from April to July and mid-October to December.

Indalescio Bogourtes and Esteban Rodriguez toss cantaloupes onto a picking rig. The melons are then packed, chilled and shipped to customers across the U.S. and Canada. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

Water-wise practices

This year, the statewide drought affects farmers throughout California. Del Bosque said he plans to grow the same amount of melons, but has reduced production of other crops because of the lack of water. He said farmers today use less water than in previous years, with practices that reduce water consumption.

"We're more efficient with our water, and started using new technologies like drip irrigation and more sophisticated methods of monitoring water and projecting how much water the crop needs," said Del Bosque, who advocated for valley farming communities during a previous drought in 2009 through the California Latino Water Coalition and also served on the California Water Commission.

"It does take water to produce food," he said. "We're trying to be responsible with how we grow our fruits and vegetables."

Del Bosque's melon crops include cantaloupes, which remain a favorite of his.

The Galia melon—bright yellow with a netting rind and white-green flesh—was added to the farm's mix of melons by accident, he said.

"We plant melons by transplants. About five years ago, a tray of Galias got mixed in with cantaloupes and when a couple of rows developed, we saw this was not a cantaloupe," Del Bosque said. The sweet, juicy melon caught the attention of a buyer for Trader Joe's, which now offers the Galia to its customers.

Stephanie and Krystal Del Bosque arrange fruit at the family farm stand in Firebaugh. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

Fun at the farm stand

Del Bosque said the farm "decided to have some fun" by planting an assortment of specialty melon varieties featuring different flavors, shapes and colors to sell at its farm stand in Firebaugh, alongside the more traditional melons. The farm also grows sweet corn, squash, asparagus and almonds.

"It is exciting at the fruit stand," said Martin Chavez, a regular visitor from Stratford. "Not only can you buy melons that were hand-picked that day, but you get to interact with the family and the farmer himself. They actually cut the melon open, show you what type of melon it is and give you a tasting."

Chavez said he always leaves the farm stand with a big box of melons, including cantaloupes, which are his favorite: "They are the juiciest, sweetest cantaloupes I've ever had."

Joe Del Bosque samples a Galia melon at the farm stand, which he says he visits at least once a day to mingle with the customers. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

Del Bosque agrees and said he also enjoys orange-fleshed specialty melons, such as the Crenshaw, which has a sweet, mellow flavor, and the Hami, known for its crisp flesh and more complex flavor. Another good choice, he said, is a "a white-flesh melon known as a canary, that is sweet with a hint of a pineapple." The piel de sapo features a sweet, juicy white flesh and sports a green rind that resembles the skin of a toad—hence its name.

"What makes melons so interesting is there are so many flavors," Del Bosque said. "It's been a lot of fun, and a lot of these specialty varieties are interesting for folks, and we really like to have them come in and enjoy them. At least once a day, I'll go to the farm stand and mingle with the customers and get some feedback."

Del Bosque's family enjoys eating melons with a Mexican seasoning called Tajin, which is a mix of salt, chili pepper and lime. "We'll also eat melon with cheese and prosciutto; that's always a favorite with cantaloupe," he said.

"My wife makes a salsa or chutney. She chops up the melons and adds other ingredients and spices. She also uses watermelon to create a semi-savory salad, which is really nice in the summertime," Del Bosque said, adding that melons are a good source of vitamin C, vitamin A and antioxidants. "Any time people can eat fresh fruit like melons, it's just great for your health."

Christine Souza

Agricultural employers throughout the state, including Del Bosque Farms, have hosted COVID-19 vaccination clinics. Photo courtesy of Del Bosque Farms

Keeping farm employees safe

As soon as COVID-19 vaccinations became available early this year, Joe Del Bosque said he volunteered his Firebaugh farm to help facilitate the delivery of vaccinations to farm employees throughout the community. Recognizing agriculture's role in supplying food during the pandemic, the state had deemed farms an essential business.

"When I got word that vaccines were going to be available in Fresno County, I jumped on it," Del Bosque said. "The county didn't know how to reach farmworkers, so we proposed that they bring the vaccines and we'd provide the site and the people, which included employees of other growers and processors in the area."

His farm was among many in the state that offered vaccination clinics for employees.

In the months leading up to the vaccination rollout, Del Bosque, like other farmers, spent weeks training employees on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, including protective measures such as social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks.

"People are important. They are a valuable resource and it's a huge benefit that they are safe," Del Bosque said. "We do our best to make this a good place to work, where employees are treated fairly."

Farmer Joe Del Bosque, shown at the edge of a cantaloupe field, says eating melons helps lift his spirits. Photo: © 2021 Tomas Ovalle

3 tips for a perfect cantaloupe

Farmer Joe Del Bosque offers advice for choosing a cantaloupe:

  • Look for a golden, straw-yellow color on the outside netting, not green.
  • A melon will release itself from the vine when it is ripe, so look at the stem to see that it has come off cleanly from the vine and wasn't cut or torn. The end should be perfectly round and concave.
  • If you prefer a softer melon, let it sit for a few days after you buy it. It will soften and also develop a sweeter flavor.

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