The mini-melons on supermarket produce aisles command a premium price and could give growers a profitable niche, says a Clemson University Extension fruits and vegetable specialist.

The switch to mini-melons would require cooling, storage and packing facilities.

“They’re just a good idea for growers to consider,” says Gilbert Miller, Clemson University Extension horticulturist. “I think we’re reaching a consumer that we haven’t reached before, a consumer who will come in, pick a four- to six-pound watermelon and put it in their shopping cart and expect to get one meal out of it and not have to deal with where to store it in the refrigerator.”

For the watermelon grower, it will take adapting practices to growing a smaller melon.

In his trials at the Edisto Research and Extension Center in Blackville, S.C., Harris says there are some varieties that stick out. While some varieties are available only through contract arrangements with seed companies, others are available to all growers.

Watermelon producers in South Carolina have had success with Mohican, Sunseeds and Syngenta Pureheart series.

In the field, row spacing is one of the most important aspects of growing mini-melons, Harris says.

“As a rule of thumb, we’re recommending that you treat mini-melons like you would cantaloupes,” Miller says.

He is looking at planting the mini-melons within the row at a foot and a half apart. “We did see some difference in row spacing and the size of the melon.” He planted the melons from nine inches to 21 inches apart; the farther apart, the bigger the melons. “It’s difficult to get the melons a certain size that will allow them to be boxed.”

Buyers typically want six to eight melons per box. An eight-count box would require the melons to be less than five pounds each. In a six-count box, the melons could go up to six pounds each.

“If a grower has a buyer who wants a six-count box, then he would have to adapt production practices to fit what the buyer needs,” Miller says. “There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered.”

Row spacing in watermelons has been an evolution over the years. For example, in 1921, growers were planting every 144 square feet. “The most we’re giving a plant now is 24 feet,” Miller says. “It used to be that we wanted 32 feet.”

Just as row spacing has declined, the overall size of watermelons has gone down.

“It’s a different market altogether now,” Miller says.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com