In North Carolina, “we're never going to replace tobacco, but we can make additional crops available that will add to the farmers' pocketbook and keep them on the farm,” says Bill Jester, North Carolina State Extension associate horticulturist.

These days, a small melon called Sprite is at the top of that “alternative” list. The 1 to 1.5 pound melon comes to the farm by way of the land grant university's Specialty Crops Program. The statewide program identifies, tests and markets new crops. Jonathan Schultheis, a horticulture professor at North Carolina State and Nick Augostini of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have played a big part in the success.

Last year, the specialty melon brought in more than $600,000 for North Carolina producers who grew it on about 60 acres. The melon is sold in supermarket chains east of the Mississippi River, Jester says.

Before it made it to the supermarket, however, Sprite was put through numerous tests in the field. One huge problem was determining when to harvest the melon. “A Sprite melon that isn't ripe isn't worth eating,” Jester explains. “Unripe, the melon tastes more like a cucumber than it does a melon. Determining when to harvest the ripe melons was very important.”

It takes approximately 65 days from transplanting to harvest. When ripe, the melon turns from green to pearl white five weeks after fruit set. “Horizontal, corky markings appear at the base of the fruit when it's at optimum ripeness,” Jester says. Once harvested the melon is cooled similar to cantaloupe. “Maintaining temperature and ventilation are all important factors for prolonging shelf life and fruit quality.”

The second time around was actually the charm for this “sweeter than any other melons currently on the market,” with sugar content up to 18 percent. The melon has a slight pear and honey dew taste.

Jester first requested seeds of the melon for roadside stand operators to grow in 1988 when he was an area specialized agent in eastern North Carolina. “We gave up on the project because seed wasn't available in the U.S.”

Fast-forward to 1997 — the establishment of the Specialty Crops Program — and Sprite gets new life on the soils of North Carolina. “Sprite was one of the crops we put in trials because we already knew it would grow well in North Carolina,” Jester says. The seed for the oriental crisp-flesh melon cultivar come from Japanese-based Sakata USA Seed Company.

Currently, about 10 growers in Sampson, Wayne, Wilson, Lenoir, Greene, Craven and Duplin counties produce Sprite.

The foresight of a group of growers will keep Sprite's momentum going. Despite a crop failure at the seed company last year, a group of growers bought up all the seed they could get their hands on the previous year. (Sataka indicates the seed shortage is temporary and will be solved in the next growing season). North Carolina producers will be able to meet the growing demand of this “specialty crop that will make it more of a commodity,” Jester believes.

“All specialty crops eventually become commodities,” Jester says. “They become commodities when they're grown on a large scale. Sprite has been a success for North Carolina growers. Marketing quality Sprite melons is very important if this demand is to continue to grow.”

The success of Sprite represents just one of the positives that can come from combined research, Extension and marketing efforts toward new crops and value-added concepts, Jester believes.

“With new crops, a lot of problems have to be worked out before we can offer them to growers,” Jester says. “We have to offer growers new crops that have been tested in the field and in the marketplace. This reduces the farmer's risk.”

Specialty melons are but one component of the Specialty Crops Program based in Kinston, N.C., at the Raymond P. Cunningham Research Station. Jeanine Davis is coordinator of the Specialty Crops Program.