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All is not well on the global melon and watermelon market, even if there is some relief in sight as the global pandemic ends. In many places the high cost of production has led to a decrease in production in favour of more profitable crops, as has been done in Spain. As well as high production costs, high transport costs and the ongoing conflict in Europe are also having a negative effect on the melon market. Only in Australia are there notable positive developments, as the consumption and export begins to bounce back after the slump caused by COVID-19. For most other countries, the season will certainly be interesting.

Netherlands: High prices and high costs for melons and watermelons
Container shortages are currently also making themselves felt in the melon supply. "The trick at the moment is to get enough containers on the boat," says a Dutch importer. "The cost of sea freight is unprecedentedly high, but that affects everyone. We currently only import from Costa Rica, but in Honduras the logistics situation is no different. Moreover, delays of a few days have been the order of the day for weeks. Incidentally, the fact that there is not an abundance of melons coming in is not a problem for the sales of the melons. Prices are at a very decent level, but we need that because of the high costs."

"For example, the selling price of Cantaloupe melons is currently between 8-8.50 euros, the Piel de Sapo, which we still offer from Brazil are sold for 13.50 to 14 euros (10 kg) and the yellow melons are also at this price level. The price of Quetzalí watermelons is around 85 cents and the seedless ones are in even more limited supply and are around 95 cents to 1 euro," notes the importer. According to him, the unrest in the Ukraine has only had a limited impact on the melon market. "You miss a customer here and there who you cannot serve, but traditionally melons did not go that way too much, which is a completely different story with an article like pears from South Africa for example. In terms of quality, the melon season is also going well, as long as the delays do not increase too much, because that is reflected in the quality."

Germany: Declining demand for melons 
A wholesaler from Southern Germany says that he has a year-round supply of melons. But currently there was no particularly high demand. He notices that melons are popular in the mass catering industry, though, where they are considered to be suitable for both consumption and decorative purposes. The water, Honey, Cantaloupe and Galia melons are sourced through Dutch importers from Spain and overseas. On average the wholesaler receives 10 to 20 crates per day with around 5 to 20kg, differing from variety to variety. Receiving the goods with a good state of ripeness is not so easy at the moment, because demand for melons was generally declining. 

Italy: Italian melon production expected to decline due to rising costs
Italian areas dedicated to melons and watermelons are expected to shrink. A major player, based in northern Italy, says there will be fewer hectares in 2022 due to rising costs and unprofitable prices.

Currently, melons from Senegal and Morocco are available on the Italian market, but sales are very slow, especially in mid-range retail chains. There are more sales in the discount stores. The trader says that there will be fewer Italian melons and he will favour long-standing customers, those with whom he makes plans every year, at the expense of occasional buyers.

Italian production in the south of Italy seems to be behind schedule, probably by about ten days, so it is unlikely that there will be significant quantities of Italian melons at Easter.

On the watermelon front, the trader expects a significant drop in the number of hectares in favour of wheat and sunflower, crops which currently have high prices. It is likely that there will be contractions in the large traditional watermelon type, while the 'midi' and black varieties should remain almost unchanged.

Spain: Reduction of up to 40% in Almería melon production
Spanish traders have started importing melons and watermelons from Senegal before the first productions from Almería arrive on the market. In this province, the earliest in Spain, there is a strong reduction expected in the acreage of ​​melon and watermelon, which could go around 40% for melons and 15 to 30% for watermelons. The reduction seems to be higher in melons in the area of Poniente; although there’s also a lower area of watermelon expected. In the area of Níjar, a little less watermelon is also expected (2-3%). With regard to the planting dates in the Nijar area, there are farms which planned to harvest about 7-10 days earlier, although it is not a large quantity, since those who plan to plant watermelon remain in the usual months of January and February.

The reason for this initial fall in transplants could be explained by the extended autumn productions of pepper, tomato, cucumber, aubergine or courgette, which are having a final stretch with good prices since 2022 started. This has motivated many farmers to postpone or even dispense with planting melons or watermelons, especially taking into account the bad experience of last season in terms of profits, and the fact is that with the current cost situation it is not worth removing products that are very well paid at the moment.

The drop in melon will be especially significant in Almería, and could reach a reduction of 40% compared to what was forecast in previous years, with the Piel de Sapo standing out well above others such as Galia, Cantaloupe and Yellow melons, also caused by the hard competition from Morocco. 

Greece: Cost of production increases by up to 50% for Greek melon growers
Currently, Greek growers are planting their watermelons in the open field. In January and February, the watermelons were planted in greenhouses. For the greenhouse watermelons, Greece should have about the same quantities as it did last year. When it comes to the open field watermelons though, volumes will be about 25 to 30 per cent lower compared to last year. There are a lot of uncertainties in the market, mainly due to the war in Ukraine as well as the ongoing economic crisis. Cost of production has increased by 40 to 50 per cent, and the costs of transport have increased significantly. This means there are a lot of unanswered questions for the upcoming summer, considering all that’s happening in Europe.

South Africa: South African melon growers face season of extremes
It seems to be a season of extremes for watermelon and melon growers. For high quality fruit, prices are excellent, says a melon trader at the Johannesburg municipal market, the largest watermelon market in the country, but there is problem fruit on the market.

“It’s not a normal season in terms of the rain and the weather has been bad,” a different watermelon market trader remarks.

The early watermelons from Limpopo were very good, the trader notes, but constant heavy rains and many overcast days in January and February diluted the sugars and led to diseases like rust and eventual fruit collapse.

Most watermelons are still coming in from the far north of Limpopo’s second crop and the Western Cape.

Some producers in the Eastern Cape are supplying the best melons at the moment, according to one trader, but it’s a season of extremes: others in the province have had massive quality problems due to disease and rain damage.

Prices are down, prices for small watermelons R10 (0.6 euros) to R30 (1.8 euros), medium large to large up to R50 (3 euros). “There’s absolutely no demand and there’s a big supply on the market, a glut even. After January the buying power drops anyway.”

Years ago, this time of the season would have only been supplied by watermelons from the Free State, but now this period is shared with the second crop from Limpopo; watermelons are planted as a cash crop and therefore the hectares planted can vary significantly from season to season.

Wariness among buyers has even spilled over to watermelons now expected from other areas which also had unusually heavy rain, like the Free State whose watermelon season will be starting within the next couple of weeks.

North America: Uncertain season ahead for North American melons
Supplies of watermelon currently are slimmer.

One shipper says lighter supplies of watermelons are coming from central Mexico into McAllen, TX and more limited supplies into Nogales, AZ. “The quality is okay and the sizing is normal. We’re seeing a repeat of last year. I see it being lighter as we transition out of Mexico and up into California,” he says. “The market is very tight at the moment and prices are at $250-$300/bin.”

That said, he adds that new fields will break at the end of the month and into the first part of April. “And last year the market was, in the same window, $250-$300 as well,” he says.

He notes that this year though, there has been less imported product on the West Coast, possibly due to port backlogs and high freight costs.

Mexican product is anticipated into late May and that’s when supplies will start coming on in California, Arizona and some, possibly earlier in May, from Texas.

However, he anticipates domestic acreage to be down. “This is because of drought, increasing costs of labor and materials, market uncertainty coming out of COVID--all of it,” he says.

To meet those greater spring volumes will likely be greater spring demand. “Right now there’s good demand because there’s not a lot of product. We’re seeing good demand in warmer regions such as Southern California. Demand is based on climate,” he says. “If there was magically a whole bunch of melons around suddenly, it would be too many.”

Looking ahead, he says the challenge will be maintaining consistency with supplies. “Everything on the horizon is uncertain other than we already know supplies will be lighter on the West Coast compared to previous years,” he says. “And we shouldn’t expect a bunch of deals or cheap trucks. Don’t have a lot of expectations.”

Meanwhile supplies of imported honeydew and cantaloupe melons are steady and the season should finish strong before supplies switch back to domestic product.

One shipper is importing both types of melons in consistent volumes via Honduras to several ports throughout the U.S. including Delaware, Miami, some to Houston and Hueneme in California

“For us, volumes have increased from last year,” he says, noting that while their Honduran supplier ships product worldwide, they didn’t send product to Europe earlier in the year as they normally would, likely due to a range of European COVID-related lockdowns. “So they sent some of that volume to the U.S. and our volumes are up this year--possibly by 300,000 units or more over last year including both cantaloupe in honeydew.” 

Movement is expected to remain steady until May 15 when the domestic season begins.

As for demand for the melons, it’s strong on the west coast where supplies are more limited and on the East Coast, where there’s more volume to move, it’s moderate to good. “On the West Coast, it is mostly due to container spaces available that bottle-necked volume,” says the shipper.

Pricing has been steady throughout the import season at double digit prices in virtually all ports. Pricing out of California is at $14 for bigger cantaloupe and $12-$13 on 12-count cantaloupe. Honeydews are about $12 while in general pricing on the East Coast is between $10-$12.

It’s anticipated to stay in that range until the end of the season. “We have some cooler temperatures here so that will delay the start of the domestic season until around May 15,” says the shipper, noting its domestic acreage in Arizona is up substantially for the spring. “That later start will help keep prices up for later offshore product.”

Australia: Melon industry begins to ‘bounce back’ post-COVID
While the peak watermelon season in Australia is in the later months of summer, retail prices have risen slightly over the past fortnight, as several fresh produce lines were impacted by heavy rain and storms, especially in Southern Queensland and Northern New South Wales. It comes as 114,975 tonnes of watermelon were produced and valued at $64.9m for the year ending June 2021, according to figures. Volume was down by 13 per cent, while value was down 22 per cent. But in a year impacted by COVID-19 and subsequent shipping challenges, there was a 70 per cent decline in export volumes (2,084 tonnes), and a 59 per cent drop in value ($5.4milllion).

Australia does not import any significant volumes of watermelon. Meanwhile, statistics also show that 67,598 tonnes of muskmelons (rockmelons, honeydew and other niche melon lines) were produced and valued at $84.1 m. Unlike watermelons, production increased over the year ending June 2021, by 16 per cent in volume from the previous year, and 23 per cent in value. The industry has already noticed a 'bounce back' across both melon categories towards the end of 2021, following the COVID-related impacts, and are hopeful of more consumption, driven by overseas flights opening up, tourism, hotels, cruise ships all starting to ramp up and buying Australian melons.

Next week: Global Overview Sweetcorn!