THE END OF APRIL marks the beginning of watermelon harvest season in Central Florida, and for growers like Andy McDonald, it’s especially sweet. That’s because McDonald double crops, planting the watermelon seedlings in his Plant City strawberry fields.
McDonald takes advantage of any lull in strawberry picking in early February to place the plants into every third row. “If we waited, it would be too late to plant the watermelons,” he explains.
McDonald also saves on fertilizer and water by double cropping on 500 acres at Sweet Life Farms. “We utilize the plastic and drip tape that we already have for the strawberries,” he says. “The strawberries are dominating the nutrient uptake until we bring the strawberries off.”
When the strawberry harvest is over, the plants are chopped to make way for the watermelons. Crowding saves even more water and fertilizer while allowing the plants to grow laterally. Though there are challenges, growing watermelons is “a lot easier” than growing strawberries, according to McDonald.
Florida is a good place to be if you want to grow watermelons. Steve Nichols, manager of the Lakeland-based Global Produce Sales, says that is because the season starts here for U.S. growers. “Watermelon production sort of moves up the country as it becomes spring,” he says. “It moves up as the temperatures heat up.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida harvests watermelons year round, but it is the only source of watermelons in the United States between December and April. The majority of its watermelons are picked from May to July.
Florida exported more fresh watermelons than any other state in 2014, accounting for one-third of U.S. exports. According to U.S. Census trade data, it exported $41.36 million in watermelons, an increase of more than four percent over 2013. The higher rate is attributed to its growing season, which falls outside of the traditional mid-summer season for northern states.
Among the challenges of growing watermelons in Central Florida, is, ironically, too much water. “We need fairly dry weather for the best melons,” Nichols states. While growers can compensate for too little moisture, there’s no way to compensate for too much rain. “If you get too much rain that’s one of the worst things that can happen to you,” he observes. “Even though they’re called watermelons, you don’t need too much.”
Watermelons are 92 percent water, but too much water during the growing season actually affects the taste. As a result, growers want their crops picked by June when it gets hot and wet, Nichols points out.
Global Produce Sales markets watermelons primarily to chain stores and wholesalers in the eastern part of the United States. But the company also ships to Puerto Rico and Canada. In addition to marketing watermelons for Sweet Life Farms, it oversees approximately 900 acres of watermelons on the western shores of Lake Okeechobee at Moore Haven.
Like other growers, Nichols enjoys watching the watermelon plants grow and develop fruit. “Producing something, that is the exciting thing,” he states. A third-generation watermelon entrepreneur, Nichols says growers face challenges like finding pickers and combating disease.
However, there’s a lot of positive news about watermelons. Not only is watermelon a great source of lycopene, it also provides several important vitamins: A, B6, C, and potassium. “Watermelon is a terrific choice for blood flow, blood pressure, and heart health,” says Stephanie Barlow, senior director of communications for the Winter Springs-based National Watermelon Promotion Board. Watermelon research has shown positive benefits in a variety of published studies available here: watermelon.org/IndustryMembers/Watermelon-Research
Traditionally known as picnic food for the Fourth of July, it’s a popular choice any time because large melons can serve several people. It’s also available in seedless, seeded, and mini varieties. Consumption has increased with the development of seedless varieties, which are more convenient, sweeter, and have a longer shelf life, the USDA reports. Notably, seedless varieties must be interplanted with seeded watermelons to pollinate.
According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, the United States is the fifth largest producer of watermelons worldwide. Florida is a top producer, along with Texas, California, Georgia, and Arizona.
While watermelons and strawberries combine well in the field, some of the watermelon’s relatives also pair well with strawberry crops, McDonald says. Which ones? Canteloupes, squash, and cucumbers.
article by CHERYL ROGERS
Posted April 15, 2016