Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Former melon thief now gives 'em away

I knew the voice instantly. When I picked up the phone Monday afternoon, it was like stepping back in time.

The voice belonged to Frank Harkenrider, former mayor of Hermiston, the town where I cut my teeth as a reporter and editor back in the early 1990s. And it was that tie to that place and that time that sent Harkenrider to my phone yesterday.

Harkenrider, or "Harkie" as he's affectionately known around Hermiston, was preparing to make his annual pilgrimage to Portland to promote his beloved hometown and its beloved signature crop, the Hermiston watermelon. At 82, Harkenrider is something of a rarity in the city that celebrates its centennial this year. Harkenrider is a native, born and raised in the community where he spent more than four decades on the city council and followed in his father's footsteps and served 10 years as mayor.

Harkie and a contingent of folks from the community will be passing out watermelons in Portland at noon on Friday. He wanted to know if the Capital Press was interested and wanted to know if I could help spread the word.

Harkenrider seemed to think I could do that because his wife had seen a copy of something I had posted on the Internet about Hermiston watermelons. I'm assuming that was a blog post, Blogriculture: Watermelon worth the price, on the topic I wrote about Hermiston melons last year. It seems that little essay has made the rounds around town. I blame my mom for that. OK, so someone probably found it by searching for "Hermiston watermelon" on Google, but it's more fun to blame mom.

So, I asked Harkenrider about the plans for this melon giveaway and got the details that became a story on the Capital Press website.

This year, there is more than fun and promotion in the giveaway. There's a political message in the promotion for Gov. Ted Kulongoski and those who thwarted a bill to tap into more Columbia River water to aid farmers and others in the area as part of what has been called the Oasis Project.

"Really, what we're trying to do is promote this whole area," Harkenrider said, not just Hermiston." It takes water to grow these products."

And the people who grow those products have donated a portion of their production to make watermelon, cantaloupe and potatoes available at noon Friday in Pioneer Courthouse Square to anyone who shows up and can haul away their booty, for as long as the produce will hold out. Which isn't likely to be long. Harkenrider credited the Hermiston Watermelon Association, which includes Bellinger Farms, Walker Farms, Pollock Farms and Walchli Farms, for supplying the melons and Bud-Rich Potato for providing the spuds that make the event possible.

It's been at least 15 years since I've interviewed Harkenrider for a news story, but I knew I could count on him for a colorful quote. He didn't disappoint. Harkenrider was telling me about the high quality cantaloupe coming out of the area this summer, which he confessed is a personal favorite going back to childhood.

"Of course, I used to swipe them as a kid," Harkenrider said.

Whatever harm Harkenrider may have done to farmers' profits as a child, he has spent a lifetime making up for it by promoting his hometown and the agriculture products grown around it that have provided the cornerstone for the region's economy.

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