If strawberries are the fruit that kick-off summer, then melons are the fruit that marks summer’s continuation.
The sweet, warm flesh of a sun-ripened melon lures farmers to harvest them by intriguing aromas wafting through the air. In the US, melons are grown from Maine to Florida and Montana to Arizona with a wide assortment of varieties.
Elmwood Stock Farm
Elmwood Stock farm in Georgetown, KY is owned by a Kentucky family who has been farming in the region for over six generations. Owner Ann Stone shared her experiences growing mouth-watering melons. Melon seeds are sourced from High Mowing Seeds and are grown in varieties including PMR Delicious, Emerald Gem, Haogen, Sugar Baby and Triple Crown. Additionally, they test several new varieties of specialty melons and seedless watermelon each season, “trying to land on the reliable go-to melon.” It can be a challenge, since customers prefer an icebox size melon (rather than large), and according to Stone, there are not many organic options in that size that perform well in their location and growing conditions. She is appreciative of ongoing research related to disease tolerance for specialty melons as they enjoy trying new varieties.
Regarding production, all Elmwood’s watermelons are transplanted. For the other melons, first crops are transplanted but later crops are directly sown in multiple plantings during the season in different areas of the farm. At Elmwood, plastic mulch is used over drip irrigation with row cover as well as paper with straw mulch for weed control between rows in the path. Animals at the farm contribute to the fertility of the soil. The Stone family has beef cattle and sheep that are part of a multi-field, multi-year planned rotation; a field is in permanent pasture for 5 years, while livestock are rotationally grazed and build up nutrients. Then they plow the field and plant crops for 3 years with different families of vegetables each year, depending on their nutrient needs (heavy feeders the first year and those less dependent on high fertility the third year). Following this planting, the fields are placed back into permanent pasture or alfalfa for the next 5 years. They use cover crops during the cropped years. They also make compost that is compliant with organic rules that is used in their transplant media as well as fields.
Stone cites main pests as the cucumber beetle and squash vine borer, and diseases include powdery mildew and downy mildew. They have attempted to use row cover to protect the melons from the pests with little success. They have also experimented with using transplants rather than direct seeded or multiple plantings in different fields. Other attempts include sourcing resistant varieties, utilizing beneficial insects and crop rotation, all with limited success. Environmental concerns are few, but sometimes conditions in the spring are too wet, which delays the first transplants and direct seeding. In general, Stone feels that the greatest challenge in regards to growing organic melons are insects that bring disease and fungal diseases during humid summers.
The melons are hand-harvested daily when ripe, and then either delivered directly to the end user or stored in their on-farm cooler in bulk bins. Melons are never stored longer than 2-3 days. The ripeness of melons is determined largely through trial-and-error with each variety. For most types of melons, the Stones watch the color change of the tendril located on the vine opposite the stem.
The melons are sold as part of Elmwood’s CSA farm share program and at farmers markets. Pricing is per melon rather than by pound: $3, $4 or $5 each depending on melon size and type. At Elmwood they have found that the smaller sized melons preferred by customers isn’t very profitable for them as the pricing is too low when considering the costs of production. “Furthermore,” states Ann, “our local markets are flooded with conventionally-grown melons that keep the price for melons low in the customer’s mind, making it difficult to receive a higher retail price even though it’s organic. Since it is a very desirable item in the CSA shares we will continue to grow them primarily for the CSA until there is more demand for organic melons in the area.”
Pacific Star Gardens
Out in Woodland, CA, Robert and Debbie Ramming of Pacific Star Gardens grow a mix of organic vegetables and fruit located right outside Sacramento, CA. Their favorite melon is Ambrosia cantaloupe sourced from Peto Seed in Woodland. Robert also has tried experimenting with an eastern style muskmelon from Harris Seeds, and Juan Canary from Johnny’s Seeds or High Mowing Seeds. Pacific Star Gardens is located in the Sacramento Valley and has Class 1 soil (prime agricultural land with one foot of topsoil with silt underneath). Tillage occurs every three years and cover crops every 2-3 years. Black plastic mulch is placed down for the first planting (around March 10th ) because it helps warm the soil, but afterwards no black plastic is used. Row cover is also used on top of the plants for the first 2-3 plantings (which also increases temperature). The Rammings plant every 2 weeks until the end of June. The compost used is OPC granulated chicken manure from a company based in WI. They spread 800 lbs per acre. Additionally, one ton of gypsum is used per acre every 3-4 years.
All melons at Pacific Star receive irrigation through drip tapes. For planting, they use a mechanical transplanter from the company Market Farm Implement in PA, which is also where they source their black plastic mulch. The Rammings own a machine that pokes holes into the plastic, and then the plants are placed in. There are 6 rows of melons, all 200 feet long, totaling about 1/7acre. The goal is to harvest organic melons from the end of May until October.
The worst pest they battle is the cucumber beetle. In dismay, Robert states, “…there is not much I can do at this point. I’ve tried using yellow sticky tape but it unfortunately caught the beneficial insects too. I’ve also tried to encourage bats which are known to eat cucumber beetles.” The other pest has been cottontail rabbits, so coyote presence has been encouraged as well as the use of squirrel traps. Environmental concerns have been less of an issue. There is certainly no excess rain in California these days, but the drought has not been a problem yet since they use drip tape, and the water table has stayed high enough. Others near Robert, however, have been going dry. There have been hail storms (most recently in April which was rock salt size). During Easter in 2013, the hail was the size of the tip of a finger for 20 minutes and destroyed much of the farm.
When the melons are ready for harvest they are picked off the ground and either put in harvest totes (for fragile melons) or on pallets (for hardier melons such as cantaloupes). In Robert’s experience, Honeydew and Charentais melons don’t “slip” off of the stem as quickly as others do. The rest of the melons are harvested at “full slip” when the melon easily breaks from the stem, changes color and the leaves begin to die back. The melons go straight to the market and are harvested every day once they begin to ripen. When kept in the shade, they are able to keep for 3-4 days. After that, the Rammings leave them for the birds or fed to the pigs. They found that selling melons wholesale wasn’t worthwhile. The melons are sold at four farmers market and a roadside stand. They do not include melons in the weekly veggie boxes. As far as profitability, compared to other vegetables on the farm they are cost-effective, but are not as lucrative as the u-pick fruit. The retail price is around $1.25-1.50/lb. The Rammings found that it is easier to organize melons in the farm stand by weight (priced as each) than when customers were placing the melons on the scale, trying to keep them from rolling around. The greatest challenges for their melon production right now are the pests, but regardless of these nuisances, Pacific Star Farm will continue to produce their outstanding melons.
In 2001, five Amish vegetable farmers near the Clarion River in western PA decided to worked together to market their certified organic produce to Pittsburgh grocery stores. Today they have developed into a cooperative of 15 horse-powered family farms called Clarion River Organics, located north of Pittsburgh near Clarion, PA. All of the contributing farms are certified organic and work to maintain healthy soils as their main means of pest and disease control. By relying on horses for power and ice houses for storage, these farms use smaller amounts of fuel and electricity.
The manager of the cooperative, Zeb Bartels, explained that the farmers grow Jade Star, Yellow Doll, Leopard, Little Baby Flower, Athena, and Galia and purchase most of their seed from Seedway and Johnny’s Seeds. All of the farms are Amish and therefore use horse equipment. Most of the melons are planted with a waterwheel planter on black plastic with drip tape. Fertility is done with manure (various kinds are produced on the farm, with chicken manure bought in) and foliar feeding. The main melon pest at all of the farms is the cucumber beetle which eats at the melon’s rinds, making them either unsellable or limiting storage time. The melon vines are usually wiped out by bacterial wilt after the harvest. So far there have been no environmental concerns.
During harvest time which begins in August, watermelons are placed into bins on a horse-drawn wagon and then stored at ambient temperature in the produce shed. Cantaloupes and Galia melons are harvested into bins or cases and stored at 36º in ice houses. Melons from this unique cooperative are sold to grocery stores, at farmers markets and for the CSA. Regarding profitability, Bartels notes that they fall in the middle range because of loss from insect damage and the tendency to rot in storage. The melons sell for around $0.65/lb wholesale and $1/lb retail. The greatest challenges are related to overall quality with watermelons and storage with cantaloupes. “We’ve had a lot of cantaloupes look good on the outside and then the customer tells us they are rotten on the inside,” lamented Bartels.
North Star Farms
Carpio, ND, up in the north-western corner of the state is home to North Star Farms. The operation has been owned and operated by Marvin & Ilene Baker since 2004. The Bakers offer a full line of vegetables, flowers and herbs to their customers as well as unusual products such as cotton, Inca tomatoes, hops and sugar cane. Melons are also a popular item at the farm and many types are produced. For watermelon lovers there is Sweet Dakota Rose, Cherokee and All-Sweet. Cantaloupe eaters enjoy choosing from Hale’s Jumbo, Hale’s Best, Kiara (a Charentais melon), Sweet Granite and Granite State. And for honeydews there is Arava and Green Flesh. The melon seed is sourced through a number of locations including High Mowing Seeds, Seeds of Change, Prairie Road Organic Seed, Johnny’s, Peaceful Valley and Sustainable Seed Co.
At North Star Farm, everything is done by hand, with the exception of hiring a 7-foot tiller in the spring. Soil fertility prep is done by using winter rye or buckwheat as a green manure. The Bakers reported that fertility has been very good all these years and believe it is related to a savvy rotation. Fortunately for the Bakers, after 11 years in business, they have not had to irrigate. “There was one day though,” remembers Marvin, “that the temperature hit 106 degrees. Yes, that day I pushed 84,000 gallons of water on the plants.” Unlike most melon growers, there have been no pest issues with their melons. They feel that they control most pests through their diligent rotation. They have noticed Colorado Potato beetles on the leaves of some of the melons, but they never became a concern. “To be honest,” shared Marvin, “the common house fly is probably the biggest nuisance, but doesn’t do any damage.” Environmental concerns do exist though. Produce is grown on the banks of the Des Lacs River in northwestern North Dakota and floods have been a recurring problem. Usually, heavy rain in the month of June floods the fields. In 2014, the Bakers lost 80 Dakota Rose watermelon plants and in 2013, more than 100 Arava honeydews. This spring has been the driest in 10 years, so they are hoping they don’t see the reverse.
All the melons at North Star are hand picked, placed in wooden crates and stored in refrigerators unless it is cold outside. If cool outside, they remain in the crates in the garage and temperature is monitored to prevent freezing. Melons are not stored for long because part of North Star’s mission is to deliver within 24 hours of picking. Melons have never been stored for more than five days and are sold through the CSA at the Minot Air Force Base and the North Prairie Farmers’ Market in Minot. They always sell quickly and are very popular. According to Marvin, “They are not terribly profitable. In fact, we grow them more as a service just to complement the other produce, and I love cantaloupe so I perhaps eat up some of that profit.” At North Star, they have found the greatest challenge lies in finding varieties that will perform well just below the 49th Parallel. Dakota Rose and Cherokee have done fairly well and, despite poor germination, All Sweet produces large melons. The other challenge is the short season. “Carpio, ND is a lot like Alaska,” explained Baker, “we have two months of long summer days in which massive growth occurs. We have 16 hours and 2 minutes of daylight on June 21. Our last frost historically is May 10 and our first frost in the fall is September 15.”
Clarion River Organics www.clarionriverorganics.com
North Star Farms www.northstarorganic.com
Pacific Star Gardens www.localharvest.org/pacific-star-gardens-M51199
Elwood Stock Farm www.elmwoodstockfarm.com