By Christy Swift
You head to your local grocery store and there they are… big, round, sweet watermelons. You give a few of them a thunk, and they all sound perfect! Today’s watermelons don’t even have any pesky seeds to deal with. It’s truly a sweet deal!
According to Trey Miller, President of the Florida Watermelon Association, Florida is currently the main supplier of watermelon grown in the United States, producing approximately 25% of the domestic supply. Our state produces about 907 million pounds per year of sweet, fresh watermelon that adheres to strict food safety guidelines and incorporates supportive environmental practices. That watermelon you picked up at the grocery store or the fruit stand might have been grown and packed right around the corner in Zolfo Springs.
Working the Soil
Steve Hall is a grower and the sole proprietor of 3rd Day Growers in Zolfo Springs. He started the business in 2008, growing tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, but switched to watermelons exclusively about three years ago. Steve, who comes from a farming background in Kentucky, worked for Phillip Morris for 25 years, but got the bug of working the land when he put in a quarter-acre garden to support a local food bank in Avon Park.
“They would get a lot of donated canned and frozen foods,” Hall recalls. “I thought, man, it would be nice if they would get fresh vegetables.”
Now, Hall says he works harder than he ever has, but it’s a labor of love because he enjoys it. Florida has two growing seasons for watermelon: spring and fall. Hall orders his seeds in December and sends them to a growhouse in LaBelle by the first of the year. That gets him a plant the size he wants by mid-February. Planting happens between the 15th of February and the first of March. Then the plants are cared for until the first week of May, when it’s harvest time with a push to be done by Memorial Day (the grocery stores will want to be well-stocked for those Memorial Day picnics).
In the fall, plants go in the ground by September first and harvesting starts in early November with a goal of having all the fruit harvested by the first of December. Hall won’t have any problem with that this year, because the fall crop hasn’t been a good one. “I planted 60 acres and I only have about 30,” he explains. “That’s because it rained 15 inches in 11 days. We couldn’t get the water off the land.”
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.
Five Things We Bet You Didn’t Know About Watermelons
Sometimes the best way to appreciate something is to learn about it. Here are a few watermelon “fun facts.”
Watermelons can get sunburned. Lighter-skinned watermelons are in danger of getting “sunburned” and ending up looking bleached out. Harris said there appears to be a mini trend on the way with consumers preferring a darker-skinned watermelon. That’s something they’ll look at when assessing the market.
You can’t have seedless watermelons without seeded watermelons. Of course, we all love seedless and there’s no going back to having to spit out all those pips. But did you know that you need some seeded watermelons in the mix in order to have seedless at all? While seedless varieties do have a flower, it has to be cross-pollinated with a seeded variety or a “dummy” flower, Harris explained, or it won’t bear fruit.
Once you plant a field with watermelon, you can’t plant on it again for 10 years. That’s not a typo. In Florida, due to a soil-borne disease called fusarium wilt, you can only get one spring and one fall planting out of a field before you have to wait, ideally, 10 full years before planting again. Think about how much land is needed to produce watermelons year after year!
Domestic watermelons are available 9 months out of the year. Check your local Publix and you’ll see local Florida watermelons in April and May, Georgia melons in June and July, Kentucky and Michigan melons through September, Georgia’s again in October, and Florida melons November through Christmas.
Buying U.S.-grown produce protects our food supply. Another challenge farmers face is competing with foreign produce from countries where growers aren’t held to as high a safety standard. U.S.-grown watermelons may cost a little more, but you know you’re getting a quality, safe product. “It may be a dollar more, but it’s something that’s made in the USA. It has enough regulation on it that you know it’s safe to eat and it came from right here in the USA, American grown. We don’t have the ability to do it the cheap way,” Harris said.
Looking for ways to enjoy that fresh, Florida watermelon that’s calling your name right now? Check out some recipes on our Food & Health pages and visit www.watermelon.org.
I learned a lot about watermelons! Thank you. . My daughter lives in Illinois and would eat watermelon every day if possible. She loves our FL watermellons. I have a better appreciation for the Mellon s Hope I candy get this link to her. Thank you for all your hard work
I am from Southern Indiana they started growing sweet baby rays watermelons a few years back they are deep red in color and very very sweet big round melons. The best we ever had we would go to other counties for great watermelons but there is nothing that comes close to Sweet Baby Rays watermelons, have you tried them? Wish you had them we would drive all over for Sweet Baby Rays.
Sorry I meant to say Sugar Baby’s also enjoy the sweet baby rays on ribs.