A Labor of Love
And that’s the not-so-sweet part of the deal. Farming is farming and that means there are no guarantees. The weather can be your number one enemy, and for watermelon farmers the danger is wind injury early on in the crop and water damage near the end. If the mature melons soak up too much rain, they’ll get soft and decay.
“I’m gonna be very lucky if I get my money back,” Hall admitted.
Another challenge is rising production costs. Donald Ray Harris III (or D.R. as he likes to be called) is vice president of Veg-King, a broker and growing/packing/shipping company headquartered in Zolfo Springs. Hall is one of their growers.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize what all it takes and what a big factor the weather plays in what they get,” Harris said. He added that costs are rising on everything from the wood for pallets, the cardboard they ship the fruit in, freight, the cost of seed, chemicals, and equipment. “It squeezes the grower,” he added.
Working Together to Feed America
Harris comes from a farming family, too. His father started Veg-King in 1995 and his grandfather was a Florida farmer back in the 1960’s. Veg-King works with local growers like Hall to keep Publix stocked with watermelons, cucumbers, and more throughout the year. They also ship to many chains in the northeast. “We provide seed, fertilizer, chemicals and even pay for land rent. After we sell his crop, we just net it out,” Harris explained. Veg-King advances their growers money and helps cushion them when they have a bad season. They also help them find good labor, another challenge for farmers. “Most of our growers have been with us for well over a decade and grow exclusively for us. We’re really tight knit,” he said.
Working together, growers like Hall and brokers like Harris are able to lay their best plans for a fruitful season. Harris looks at trends and what the market is demanding while Hall gives feedback on which varieties are working best and what pressures he’s facing in the field. These decisions affect what you see when you push your cart up to that big bin of watermelons.
Despite the hardships, most agriculture folks just keep on keeping on. D.R. is raising the next generation of farmers with his wife Miranda, including 11-year-old Braelyn who was named this year’s Desoto County Crimson Sweet Watermelon Queen, six-year-old Parker and two-year-old Scout. “Watching (my grandfather) and my daddy run the company has given me insight and appreciation for the watermelon industry. I wear this crown proudly because it represents my family’s love and passion for the watermelon industry,” Braelyn said, wearing her sash and crown.