For many people, a sweet, juicy bite of watermelon on a hot day means summertime has arrived. And if you’ve eaten one recently, or will in the next few weeks, that melon likely grew in Georgia where farmers have overcome hurdles to enjoy a good season, say University of Georgia experts.
An Easter freeze hit the crop in the middle of planting, which started in mid-March. High winds sandblasted young plants a week later. Then an extreme drought settled over Georgia. All of this hurt the crop and delayed its development.
Overall, the crop has come out okay, says Terry Kelley, a watermelon specialist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Eighty percent of the crop is rated in fair to good condition.
“It has been an uphill battle this year for farmers,” Kelley says. “But it hasn’t been the steepest they’ve ever climbed.”
Harvest geared up and was expected to hit full throttle right before that quintessential watermelon holiday: the Fourth of July.
“If you bought a watermelon for the Fourth in Georgia, it was probably a Georgia melon,” Kelley says.
Georgia farmers planted about 30,000 acres this year, he says. Yields will be good, but not great, probably 40,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds per acre.
Farmers have received prices “they can certainly live with,” Kelley says, ranging from 14 cents to 18 cents per pound. The crop last year was worth about $55 million.
Drought conditions helped keep disease problems at bay this season, says David Langston, a plant pathologist with the UGA Cooperative Extension. But in recent weeks a disease called powdery mildew has attacked and collapsed vines in some fields.
This turned a relatively low-cost disease year into a moderate to high-cost one.
Responding to market demand over the past decade, Georgia farmers now grow mostly seedless watermelon varieties.
Kelley predicts a new shift in the market in the coming years with the introduction of mini-melons. Weighing about 5 pounds, they are just the right size for an individual. Georgia farmers have already taken note and are growing a small number now.
Big or small, an uncut watermelon can stay fresh a week at room temperature, a little longer if kept over an air-conditioned vent. A sliced melon should be wrapped in cellophane and stored in the refrigerator to keep it crisp.
Miscellaneous melon facts:
• The watermelon is in the Cucurbitacea family and related to the cucumber and squash.
• A watermelon is 90 percent water.
• Native to central Africa, watermelons were first cultivated by ancient Egyptians.
• Farmers plant 1,600 to 1,800 watermelon plants per acre.
• One commercially-grown plant produces one or two melons in the field.