Florida’s Favorite Red, Juicy, Triangle
by MARY TOOTHMAN
There’s no question that watermelon is a popular crop among growers: it’s grown in more than 96 countries in the world and 44 states in the United States!
According to the Florida Watermelon Association, it’s particularly well suited for the Sunshine State, where watermelon production is ranked among the top states in the nation in productivity and value.
The U.S. currently ranks fourth in worldwide production of watermelon. Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Arizona consistently lead the country in production. In terms of acreage, the ranking order is Texas, Georgia, Florida and California. In crop value, the order is California, Florida, Texas, then Georgia.
In 2017, Florida had 20,000 acres of production in watermelon with a combined value of $135,564,000. Debbie Brady, executive director of the Florida Watermelon Association, says Florida has the perfect climate for watermelon and is the only state in the country that produces watermelon during the period between December and April.
With the introduction of Citrus Greening in 2005, some watermelon crops are now being grown in citrus groves that have been infected and needed to be uprooted. Growing watermelons or another crop in those fields provides an alternate source of revenue.
While the primary season for Florida watermelon growers is late spring/early summer, watermelons are grown year-round in the state. Watermelon is generally considered a summer fruit, but growers are lucky enough to be able to plant watermelon for harvest in the winter as well.
“Watermelon is an excellent companion crop to Florida’s livestock ranchers,” Brady says. “Many growers use cattle fields in years when the cattle are grazing elsewhere. A couple of years of watermelon production rejuvenates the soil to regrow lush grasses when the cattle are returned to the field.”
There was a time when seed-spitting contests were a popular part of watermelon consumption. But today, seedless watermelon make up the majority of watermelon grown in Florida. Seedless varieties were invented more than 50 years ago and quickly gained in popularity.
White “seeds” in seedless watermelons are actually seed coats and are a safe to eat. Because seedless watermelons are sterile, a portion of the field has to be planted in a seeded variety and bees are used to cross pollinate the plants.
In whatever form, watermelons can add a spark to a picnic or family meal. “Watermelon isn’t just a fruit; it’s a backdrop to favorite family memories,” says Brady. “Memorial Day and Fourth of July are two peak holidays for watermelon consumption.
“Much of growing and harvesting is timed to deliver watermelons to families throughout Florida and the country to celebrate those holidays.”
The nostalgic appeal of eating watermelon at special events doesn’t hurt sales and consumption. “I know when I think of summer picnics growing up and trips to the lake, I always remember eating a slice of watermelon with the juice dripping off my chin and spitting seeds with my brother and sister,” Brady says. “Watermelon just says summer to me.”
Of course, for growers, it’s work. And often, challenges arise. Harvesting watermelon is a hands-on task. Crews harvest ripe melons from the field by hand, and will pick over the same area multiple times as the fruit from the plants mature at different rates.
Because the crews and equipment are in the field multiple times, rain greatly affects the harvest, Brady says. If the ground is too wet, entering the field to harvest will destroy the vegetation and diminish overall production. The heavy rains in the state recently have been a challenge for growers.
Growers may share experiences and ideas via the Florida Watermelon Association for such challenges. Founded in 1968 by a small group of farmers, the association enables growers and marketers to collaborate and work to promote the consumption of Florida-grown watermelon. Members are provided with a forum, organized via the association’s office base, and exchange pertinent information about the industry.