Holding Pattern

A melon’s journey from soil in Sonora to a Safeway on your street.

June 23, 2013

FeaturesIssue 1: Summer 2013

Do you ever eat the melons?” I ask Prescott Vandervoet, a produce broker who imports melons grown in Mexico to a warehouse in Nogales, Arizona. For the last few hours we’ve been walking through this warehouse, among the brown cardboard canyons of seven-foot produce stacks, talking melons, squash and grapes. I’m having a hard time imagining how this mass of melons from northern Mexico—hundreds of thousands of them—ever becomes just one melon in one person’s fridge on the U.S. side of the border.

It’s 35 degrees inside these warehouses and my hands are so cold that I can barely write on my notepad. The frigid environment smells more like cardboard than fruit, but still: This is the source of the produce I smell and squeeze as I wander with my cart around Safeway. I want to try a melon fresh off the semi-truck. I wonder if it’s even allowed, cracking into these pallets to pull out a single piece of fruit. A small sign posted on a steel wall at the Sigma Sales warehouse declares: “No Smoking, No Food in Warehouse or Cold Rooms.”

Holding-Pattern-melon-feature

Testing for quality.

When I ask Prescott for a taste, he nods, unperturbed. “The big companies usually just hire someone for quality control, but I come out here everyday and cut into a melon.” He walks over to the nearest stack of boxes, extending a foot over his head, and hoists one down. He pulls out a smooth melon with mint-green skin. “Orange flesh,” he says, and walks over to a wide, steel table pushed against the warehouse wall. He grabs a sleek knife, slices the melon in half, draws a half-moon shape in the flesh and stabs out a cross section of juicy fruit. He looks at it for a moment and then pops it in his mouth.

This melon has been sitting in a box in a stack of pallets in the warehouse for over a week, waiting for a buyer. Despite everything that Prescott and his colleagues do to keep melons moving when they are fresh and nutritious, many factors slow their movement to a halt. The orange flesh is perfectly ripe now. By the time it reaches the supermarket for which it’s destined, it might be too over-ripe to sell to a consumer. Some melons are made available to local outlets if someone can come and get them in time. If the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona has an available truck to pick the boxes up, they’ll go there for free. If not, these stacks of melons—hundreds of boxes; thousands of melons—will go to the dump.

…a melon picked at sunrise on Tuesday in Hermosillo is on sale in a Tucson supermarket on Thursday afternoon.

Prescott Vandervoet works with his father, Brian Vandervoet. Together they run Vandervoet & Associates, a produce distributor and broker based in Nogales, Arizona. In the winter, 70 percent of produce on American supermarket shelves comes from Mexico and most of that produce gets channeled through Nogales—the biggest inland produce port in the world. Although McAllen, Texas is seducing an increasing number of semis—with easier access to the eastern seaboard and a state legislature that understands that a country’s border should function more like a membrane than a wall—the Mariposa port of entry in Nogales is still, for now, the Ellis Island of Mexican produce.

Prescott and Brian work with melons. They buy cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon and a new melon variety called Orange Flesh from three growers in Caborca, Sonora. Depending on the season, they may also work with another grower or two in Hermosillo. Every day between October and February, the Vandervoets are moving—receiving and shipping—19,000 boxes of melons. Warehouse space is tight, so whatever comes in had better displace something moving out.

If all goes according to plan, if Brian and Prescott’s hard work pays off, a melon picked at sunrise on Tuesday in Hermosillo is on sale in a Tucson supermarket on Thursday afternoon.

All Movement

The story of these melons begins in an irrigated field in the deserts of Northern Mexico. The endless matt of thick green vines, tangled and covered with lush leaves, is startlingly bright against the arid desert background. Receding rows of thick foliage hide the ripening melons below, flourishing in the “hot, dry, lonely, sandy soils,” says Prescott.

An agronomist walks the fields and inspects the melons, measuring the sugar content and diameter of the ripening fruits. The growers watch the weather, report to Prescott and Brian and wait to hire the migrating field crews who are capable of harvesting 1,000 acres of food in a week. Prescott and Brian watch, they wait and then they hire. Beginning at sunrise, pickers stoop over low-lying vines of thick green leaves and sling melons into burlap bags until noon, when the bulging sacks are thrown into trailers. From noon until eight o’clock at night, the conveyer belts whir under the corrugated, tin roof of the open-air packing shed and 50 hands wash, sort and size melons into boxes. In the nine o’clock darkness, each semi trucks is loaded with 1,500 boxes of melons. By three or four in the morning, a truck driver arrives just shy of the Mariposa border crossing, and pulls over to sleep for a few hours before the border opens at 10. If the driver gets in at the front of the line, they’re able to cross the border in an hour and the melons are stacked in the Vandervoet warehouse in another hour.

But produce does not always travel according to plan: Workers pick melons, box and load them onto trucks; from there, it’s all movement, all reaction. Semi trucks laden with 40,000 pounds of produce rock along on rutted roads through Mexico—most aren’t paved—and they break down. Melons coming from Hermosillo might hit an eight-kilometer line at the military checkpoint at Querobabi and suffer an eight-hour delay inching forward so that each cargo hold is given a careful or perfunctory inspection. This uncertainty is just part of the game, part of what Brian and Prescott must gamble upon as they communicate with those who will buy the melons once they cross the border.

Prescott Vandervoet (left) and his father Brian, watch over the movement of melons from the soils of Sonora to supermarkets in the U.S.

Prescott Vandervoet (left) and his father Brian, watch over the movement of melons from the soils of Sonora to supermarkets in the U.S.

Trucks arrive at the Mariposa checkpoint on the Nogales border crossing and are stymied by a whirlwind of paperwork: a contract from a custom house broker in both Mexico and the U.S., declared load values and weight surcharges and export-import agreements. All the paperwork must be perfectly filed and submitted without flaws. On the northern immigration front, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration might look at the paperwork; on the other hand, they might take x-rays or ask the driver to unload part or all of his cargo. Even if the U.S.D.A. and the F.D.A. wave the truck through, there are over a dozen other federal agencies at the border that might hold things up in order to take a second look at the melons or the trucks that carry them.

Once the melons have officially immigrated, they arrive, finally, to the Vandervoet warehouse. A beeping semi truck backs up to the open door. The warehouse foreman slides open the cargo hold and the manager zooms over standing on a forklift. He doesn’t pause as he approaches the cargo hold. He accelerates forward, scoops up a stack of eight pallets, and neatly spins into reverse. A quick twist of the wheel and the forklift is in drive again, depositing a stack of melons in a line in one of four storerooms. There, in the safety of 35 degrees, they wait for five minutes or five days.

A Cornucopia of Colors

The Vandervoets are experts at selecting and importing melons. But a purchaser doesn’t just want melons: They want the fixings for a fruit salad, the variety of a produce section. So, often retailers will turn to brokers—the middle-men in a land of middle-men—who buy produce from distributors in Nogales, like the Vandervoets, and consolidate it, in another warehouse, for produce needs of a specific customer like Sodexo or Safeway.

The foreman at the warehouse in Nogales shuttles pallets full of watermelons to await a buyer in the safety of 35 degrees.

The foreman at the warehouse in Nogales shuttles pallets full of watermelons
to await a buyer in the safety of 35 degrees.

Mike Smith, a broker at Sigma Sales, Inc., will buy boxes of melons from the Vandervoets to combine with Costa cucumbers and Miss Sonora Squashes, arranging pallets in a semi truck like a Tetris master to fill an order for a specific client. If the Vandervoet warehouse is a monoculture of melons, the Sigma Sales warehouse, vastly bigger, is a cornucopia of colors. While it might look disorganized—boxes of melons saddled next to cucumbers and squash—the proof of their efficiency is in the pudding: Mike says they ship 200,000 boxes of produce out of here every day.

Mike sends semi-trucks full of produce to retailers who, finally, may think about the eater and the money we consumers will wield for fresh cantaloupe in December. Though melons move fluidly along the food supply chain, retail sales are where a melon earns its keep. In the best-case scenario, when all the moving parts synch like clockwork, a melon vine-harvested from the Coast of Hermosillo irrigation district may be sold at a local retailer in Phoenix or Albuquerque in as few as three days.

In the worst case, if the melons are bound for Boston or Bozeman and if the moving parts don’t connect or the commodity’s supply chain stutters, it might be two weeks before a melon sees a supermarket shelf. That’s 14 days, huddled in 35-degree warehouses and stacked in the back of semi trucks, hurtling across the country.

Holding-Pattern-melon-feature

Melons waiting to ship.

Prescott sends me home with a box of the ripe Orange Flesh melons. I slice a melon open on a pale wood butcher’s block and the two halves fall apart with a soft thud, the fruit revealing itself true to its name. White seeds embedded down the center contrast with the bright orange flesh. I scoop out the seeds, peel away the rind then slurp the candy-sweet fruit, bending over the counter so I don’t drip on the floor. Still cool from a 10-day chill in the warehouse, the smooth flesh tastes like ice cream melting in my mouth.

When I get up the next morning, as coffee drips into the pot, I slice another melon in half, eager to dice the sweet orange flesh into a bowl of yogurt. The melon nearly falls apart. The center star of seeds has gone piggly-wiggly. Four seeds have swerved from the center into the flesh, burrowing into the smooth orange like rogue missiles. I break open the last melon, and it too, is beyond edible—it’s more sugar mush than orange flesh. Despite the months-long care and concern of the farmer, the quick work of the harvester and trucker, the worried negotiations by the broker and distributor—despite the careful connections forged by numerous players across two countries—the melon has the last word. Not even two weeks after it left the ground in Mexico, the melon lands, with a soft exhale, at the top of my garbage bin. ✜

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.


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