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GREEN RIVER - Not long ago, a tourist couple driving Interstate 70 stumbled upon a dusty roadside stand selling fragrant melons that had sensuous and complex flavor unlike anything they had ever experienced.
Any Intermountain West fruit connoisseur could have told them Green River melons, whose harvest began this past week, are the sweetest part of the Utah summer. To a Green River aficionado, the California melons that flood the market every year are barely edible gourds next to the honeydew, canteloupes, watermelon and other melons cultivated on this tiny patch of Utah desert.
Like clockwork, Green River grower Jay Vetere received a blank check the next July from the couple imploring him to ship a case of melons to Florida.
Vetere remembers weighing the crate. "When I saw how much the UPS shipping was, I didn't have the heart to charge for the honeydews. I just put them in for free."
The incident illustrates not only the addictive flavor of Green River melons, but the quirky humans that cultivate them. Vetere for instance, hand selects every melon he sells, whether it's through his roadside stands or the handful of Utah grocery stores that buy them. The family's fields are a careful patchwork of stepping places that he and his sons trod while seeking melon perfection, avoiding the vines of those that need more ripening time.
Yet in a national produce market increasingly driven by geographical "branding" - think Walla Walla onions, Hatch peppers, Copper River salmon and California raisins - Green River melon growers, until recently, have never labeled their limited-edition product - let alone registered a trademark.
Their melons are truly rare - the production is so low the state doesn't even have trustworthy statistics on it. Green River's three major growers -Vetere, Thayn and Dunham - each have fewer than 90 acres committed to melons. (The Utah 2002 agriculture census shows less than 500 acres statewide were devoted to melons.)
Also, the producers are a highly fractious group of family clans that only begrudgingly cooperates in their shared livelihood and passion.
"Growing melons is very much a family thing in that area," says Emery County agriculture extension agent Dennis Worwood. "They are quite territorial. They don't like to divulge acreage or what varieties they are planting."
An attempt several years ago to organize a growers association to promote the Green River mark failed when the families would not sit down together.
"These are the melon barons of Utah," says Utah State University vegetable specialist Dan Drost. "These guys are fiercely independent."
The families share a tiny agriculture region, basically a flat spot where the Green River emerges from the red rock cliffs. "They have a perfect climate protected by the Book Cliffs and good sandy light soils that allows early rapid growth and a long production period," Drost says.
The growers find themselves in an equally unique market: classic roadside fruit stands, farmers markets and wholesale customers confined to the Intermountain West.
"They've eked out a bit of a market niche for themselves," says Drost. "They harvest earlier than anywhere else in the state and they can ship in a bunch of different directions [on I-70]."
The growers are proud of their melons and know the flavor, imparted by hot days and cool nights, is the crucial difference. "If you have high quality, you can sell everything you grow," says Tim Vetere, a third-generation melon grower. Each year his family tests new varieties, but, "if the quality isn't there, we abandon them."
Drost puts the marketing potential of the melons succinctly: "You go down there and have a Green River melon and you never want to have one from anywhere else."
Unfortunately, the growers have not capitalized on their melons' renown. "People know about us all through word of mouth," Jay Vetere says.
Consequently, their high quality, select melons sell for more than the average, but not significantly more. "They have a reputation, but they haven't figured out how to go about protecting it," Drost says, who believes good marketing would directly increase the growers' profit margin.
"We like to get as high a price as we can," agrees Chris Dunham. "The problem is, we're farmers. We are not marketers."
Lee Thayn took what was considered a radical step when he started slapping Green River stickers on every canteloupe and watermelon he wholesales to Associated Foods and Kroger. (Mega-giant Wal-Mart has enquired about Green River melons, he says.)
But the Thayns have learned that aggressive marketing can lead to competing buyers , complicated disputes and lawsuits.
"We are so small we get caught in the middle," Lee Thayn says. "Talk about a sweat box."
Following market trends, the growers have introduced more exotic melons - Casaba, Crenshaw, Israeli, Yellow Canary - to their customers with varying success.
But innovation has confused committed consumers, who think Green River's quality is a result of the seeds-not the effect of climate and soil, what French wine producers call terroir. Thus, the otherwise pedestrian crimson sweet watermelon, in the microclimate at the foot of the Book Cliffs, develops an exquisite flavor and has become the "Green River watermelon."
The growers all have stories of outraged consumers who see a new variety and accuse the grower of shipping Green River knockoffs. "We have customers who argue with us about it," Dunham says.
Marketing experts say it just shows the power of a brand.
"If we didn't have the Green River thing, we wouldn't be able to compete," says Nathan Thayn, a second-generation melon grower. He complains theft of the "Green River" name is a growing problem. Every year, stands pop up around the state offering Green River watermelons weeks before any Green River grower has harvested. Even worse, the counterfeits are tasteless early California production.
"We need to be more aggressive about people doing false advertising because that hurts us. It's not a fair business practice," Dunham says.
In the end, members of the current generation of growers know they will have to balance any rewards of expanding their market against a basic truth: Melon cultivation is about the most back-breaking farming around. "Think about throwing 20-pound melons around all day. They work hard for the money," USU's Drost says.
It's not surprising that Tim Vetere quips, "The only mistake we've made with melons is getting into the business."
And Nathan Thayn jokes, equally deadpan, "We grow all the melons we care to."
Meanwhile, the Green River clans have begun another season that will run through the end of October. This year hand selecting melons will be difficult for Jay Vetere who lost his left arm last fall in a farm accident. "This hook ain't worth anything in picking melons," he says of his prosthesis.
Jackie, his wife, is not sure the fourth generation of Veteres will be as committed as Jay. "He's the one who loves to grow melons. And there isn't any harder work in the world."