Speaking at the recent 21st annual Southeast Fruit and Vegetable Expo, Bill Guthrie, a long-time vegetable farmer and president of Bogue Sound Watermelon Cooperative, said the success achieved by his small group of farmers in rural eastern North Carolina was a wakeup call to the need for better marketing.

Though watermelons and other crops have been grown in the area around Moorhead City, N.C., for hundreds of years, it has been known more for its fishing and lately for its tourism than for its crops.

People along the Eastern Seaboard were introduced to Bogue Sound watermelons back in the 1950s when fishermen in their Pogie boats came to Bogue Sound for its gentle water and teeming fish supply. In the summer months, many of these fishermen would come into Moorhead City and buy watermelons from local farmers.

Over a period of years these large, sweet melons became popular in home ports of the Pogie boat fishermen. Many of these enterprising fishermen loaded their boats with watermelons and sold them in their home ports from Virginia to New York.

Watermelon growers from Raleigh to the coast capitalized on the legend of Bogue Sound watermelons, though some were grown hundreds of miles from the area. In 2005, a group of farmers in the ‘real’ Bogue Sound banded together to take advantage of their historic reputation and to prevent others from marketing melons grown outside the area.

The driving force behind the Bogue Sound Cooperation — not a true cooperative — is Billy Guthrie. “My great-grandfather grew watermelons, and a lot of these growers' great-grandfathers grew watermelons,” Guthrie says. “With the tobacco buyout, a lot of folks are looking for new things to grow.

Ray Harris, Cooperative Extension director in Carteret County, says he still fields calls from northern states asking for Bogue Sound watermelon seeds. Bogue Sound watermelons aren't actually a variety, Harris explains. While the melons are common varieties like Royal Sweet or Crimson Sweet, he says, they emerge from Bogue Sound soils with an extra-sweet taste that makes them distinctive.

To qualify to join the co-op, growers must use land that drains directly or indirectly into the Bogue Sound, Guthrie says. This includes areas from Swansboro to Morehead City. Right now, there are 20 growers in the co-op.

The Bogue Sound growers have been supported by the state and by the Golden Leaf Foundation. Prior to the Tobacco Buyout in 2004, there were 19 tobacco growers in the area. Now, only two tobacco growers remain. Several of these former tobacco growers have become watermelon growers.

Thanks to a $30,000 Golden LEAF value-added grant, the association has produced stickers, flyers, hats, t-shirts and other marketing materials that bear the new Bogue Sound watermelon logo.

“The place we live, between Swansboro and Moorhead City, N.C., is a big center for tourism now, but it wasn't always that way,” Guthrie says. When I was growing up everybody grew a few watermelons, a few acres of peanuts, some tobacco for cash, had a couple head of hogs and some chickens. Back then it wasn't farm or try, it was farm or die,” he says, only half jokingly.

“Our concept in developing Bogue Sound Watermelons was to try and duplicate in a small way the success of Vidalia, Ga. and the branding of Vidalia onions. In 2004, we developed our logo and made some stickers that went on our watermelons that were sold primarily at seven or eight roadside stands,” he says.

“In 2005, Bogue Sound Cooperative didn't sell any watermelons outside the roadside stands in our area. In 2006, they sold 20 tractor trailer loads. Currently, there are 20 growers who make up the cooperation.

“We began working on our articles of incorporation in 2005 and we registered our logo with the North Carolina Secretary of State. In 2006, we got some money from the Golden Leaf Foundation, and we were able to hire a marketing person to help us. We were so ignorant, Guthrie laughs, we found out how little we knew about selling watermelons,” he recalls.

“For example, I never knew how important a good pallet is to selling watermelons in bulk. We had people making their own pallets and they were different sizes and varying strengths, and it was a valuable lesson we learned that had nothing to do with growing watermelons,” Guthrie recalls.

“We had one retail grocery store chain that bought a lot of our watermelons. Demand locally was good. But we found that our 35-40 pound super sweet watermelon wasn't necessarily what consumers in New York City wanted. To be in the market, we found we have to grow what the consumer wants. Next year, we will grow the 14-16 pound melons that are in such demand,” he says.

“Through our marketing person, we were able to line up 27 brokers and had two buyers come out to Bogue Sound to look at our watermelons. We didn't feel like we needed any help selling our watermelons through the roadside stands, so we went after consumers in parts of the country with no direct access to us, in hopes of spreading the reputation of Bogue Sound watermelons to other parts of the country,” Guthrie explains.

If success of the program is measured in dollars, it was wildly successful. Some of the Bogue Sound watermelons in 2006 sold for an average of nine cents per pound, with several loads selling for 12 cents a pound, which is well above national standards.

“Most of the time farmers are our own worst enemy. I know that because I am a farmer and admit to being stubborn, arrogant and determined to grow what I want to grow. “That kind of attitude won't work in today's market, but our co-op is proving that the spirit of unity and people working together will work in agriculture. We are pleased with the progress of Bogue Sound Watermelons and hope to grow the program in the future,” Guthrie says.