Colorado farmers worry that Listeria outbreak has ruined prime selling season

DENVER — A multistate Listeria outbreak linked to a Colorado farm has the state’s melon farmers worried that their prime selling season has been ruined.

In Rocky Ford, farmer Greg Smith this week laid off his lone farm stand employee because he said customers all but vanished when news of the outbreak spread.

The outbreak has killed as many as four people. Colorado officials said Friday the contaminated melons were whole fruit from a Jensen Farms in the Rocky Ford region and have been recalled.

Angry at reporters and camera crews reporting on the tainted melons, Smith said, “You’ve basically put a .30-caliber bullet between our eyes.”

Mike Bartolo, a Rocky Ford-based vegetable crops specialist for Colorado State University, has been fielding questions from the two dozen or so farmers who make a living selling Rocky Ford cantaloupes. He said the Listeria outbreak is a major blow to the farmers, but it would have been worse if it occurred a few weeks ago.

“If this thing had happened at the beginning of the season, instead of the end, it would have been just devastating,” Bartolo said. “As it is, I think it’s too soon to know what will happen next year.”

Bartolo said the “Rocky Ford cantaloupes” name has no legal protection, such as the strict legal definition of a Vidalia onion, to prevent farmers outside the region from using the name. In fact, he said, Rocky Ford was a major melon-seed producer from the 1900s to 1940s, selling melon seeds nationwide under the name “Rocky Ford” or “Rocky Sweets,” so there may be cantaloupes from far away sold under the name.

Colorado Chief Medical Officer Chris Urbina said he understands the anger of other farmers who feel tarnished by the outbreak.