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They’re So Vine : Melons thrive in desert climes, but some county farmers do offer varieties of honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grown on sprawling vines and sweetened while basking in the sun, melons are one of the most popular produce items your grocer keeps in stock.

But for Ventura County grocers, maintaining an abundant and varied melon supply means relying on out-of-county growers.

Melons thrive in the dry heat of areas such as the San Joaquin Valley, where a large percentage of California melons are raised. Ventura County farmers can’t compete with the high melon production of these drier areas.

So they don’t try--on a large scale anyway.

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A few farmers do allocate a few acres each summer to a variety of melons. They have found a customer base in melon fanciers who prefer the superior taste of vine-ripened varieties. Nearly all of the locally grown melons are sold inside the county.

As home gardeners know, the longer a melon is allowed to stay on the vine, the riper it becomes, the sweeter it gets. But a ripe melon is a melon with a very short shelf life--so grocery stores don’t generally like them.

Enter local growers. They know that for consumers who prefer a vine-ripened melon, nothing else will do.

One of the growers consumers turn to is Rick Brecunier, proprietor of Tierra Rejada Ranch in Moorpark. Most of what he raises--including a wide variety of vegetables--is harvested by “you-pick-'em.” Not the melons, however. Those are left to ripen until the fruit breaks from the stem.

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Three varieties of cantaloupe are available here.

“Our most popular variety is the Ambrosia,” Brecunier said. “It’s grown from an expensive hybrid seed.” The Ambrosia has a soft, delicate texture and is “really sweet and very fragrant.”

And it has a small seed cavity, he said, “so you’re going to get more meat out of these.”

This isn’t a variety you’re likely to see in chain grocery stores.

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“Even though the Ambrosia seems firm on the outside,” Brecunier said, “they’re not suitable for shipping in bulk because they bruise very easily.”

Other varieties Brecunier carries include the Burpee--"which is a bit less firm than the Ambrosia"--and the Sweet Dream. Include this green variety in an assorted fruit salad for added color.

“This one is green-fleshed,” Brecunier said. “It would remind you of a honeydew.”

Tierra Rejada Ranch is at 3370 Moorpark Road, Moorpark. Hours: daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 529-3690.

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When the Oxnard Iwamoto & Son family farm operation decided to devote part of its land to cantaloupe production, the fields were sown with a special hybrid that would have a higher yield.

“We wanted to get seed for a cantaloupe that was hybridized especially for this climate,” said Rick Gean, a son-in-law to the Iwamoto family. The result is the Saticoy cantaloupe, which Gean and his wife, Molly, are selling at numerous Southern California farmers’ markets. “The Saticoy is unique for this area. It’s only been around for about four years,” Gean said.

“Except for a deep-orange flesh, it pretty much looks like a normal cantaloupe.”

Gean said the Saticoy’s outstanding qualities are its stronger than normal cantaloupe flavor and fragrance. “It’s also juicier than most because of a high water content.”

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You won’t want to employ the standard test for judging a cantaloupe’s ripeness with the Saticoy variety, Gean warned.

“Usually you look for a soft end where the fruit was attached to the vine,” he said. Not so with the Saticoy. “The better ones are the firm ones. If it gets soft it loses its flavor. We make sure to educate our customers they aren’t purchasing a normal cantaloupe--otherwise they let it sit until it’s soft.”

He also offers a “Crimson Sweet watermelon.”

“It’s very strange looking,” Gean said. “It’s shaped more like a pumpkin.”

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Gean’s melons are being sold at at both the Wednesday and Saturday Ventura County farmers’ markets. “Plus Thursdays in Thousand Oaks and Oxnard.”

Ventura County Farmers’ Market Manager Karen Wetzel said besides Gean’s offerings, the locally grown melon selection is slim at area outlets. “Except for maybe a token plant, all other melons are brought in from out-of-county growers,” Wetzel said.

At their roadside stand outlet, Underwood Ranch in Somis provides another outlet for local melons. There you’ll find a few different varieties of honeydew, cantaloupe and watermelon.

“A yellow seedless watermelon is our main one right now,” co-owner Craig Underwood said. Its bright yellow flesh is similar in taste to its red cousins and every bit as sweet.

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“Cut up in a fruit bowl with other fruits, people often mistake its appearance as pineapple,” he said.

This near-spherical melon is slightly smaller than a basketball, which “makes it a nice size for the fridge,” Underwood said.

The Underwood Ranch roadside market is at 5696 Los Angeles Ave., Somis. Call 386-4660.

* FYI

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Ventura County’s perpetual cool, overcast weather has delayed the melon crop harvest. You still have at least another few weeks to enjoy these local pickings.


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