CORDELE — Thanks to weeks of dry, sunny weather, Georgia farmers have produced one of the sweetest watermelon crops in memory, just in time for the nation’s 230th birthday celebration, when consumption of the round or oblong fruit soars like the rockets at a fireworks show.

Because of the timing of Georgia’s harvest, the state is a major East Coast supplier of the watermelons that Americans traditionally chill and slice at holiday picnics.

While consumers may appreciate the sweeter-than-usual taste, growers are savoring strong demand and favorable prices.

Farmers have had to settle for as little as 3 cents per pound some years, but prices this season are ranging from 7 to 9 cents, said Bill Dorough, manager of the State Farmers Market in Cordele, a major shipping point for Georgia watermelons and cantaloupes.

“The crop is 100 percent better than last year,” said Dorough, who has worked with melons since the 1970s. “It’s as good as I’ve ever tasted — cantaloupes or watermelons. There are cases where folks have made the best yields they’ve ever made.”

About one-quarter of Georgia’s $42 million watermelon crop is shipped from the Cordele market, which is running at a frenzied pace these days. Most are shipped directly from packing sheds scattered throughout southern Georgia.

Farmers arrive at the market all hours of the day or night with pickup trucks and wagons brimming with watermelons while large refrigerated trucks roll out and head North on Interstate 75 with their perishable cargos.

Sweaty laborers toss melons for hours in the 90-degree heat, transferring them to 18-wheelers that will rush them to supermarkets in Chicago, New York, Washington and other Northern cities.

Some buyers, such as J.O. Turner, the assistant manager of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Butler, buy smaller loads. He’s been a Cordele buyer for 25 years.

“They’re the best I’ve ever seen,” said Turner as workers loaded his pickup truck. “They’re sweeter than I’ve ever tasted. I guess the dry weather has helped.”

Warm, sunny weather increases the sugar content in watermelons. The lack of rain this spring reduced disease threats, but since most of the crop is irrigated, the melons weren’t deprived of their main component — water.

Although watermelons are often viewed as a fruit, they are technically a vegetable, related to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash. They’ve been harvested for at least 5,000 years, and today more than 1,200 varieties are grown in 96 countries.

Americans consume more pounds of watermelons, which are 92 percent water, than any other melon, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board. Consumption peaks during the Fourth of July celebration.

The town of Cordele, located about 150 miles south of Atlanta, bills itself as the Watermelon Capital of the World and hosts an annual festival, which began June 10 and runs through July 9, to honor the crop. The festivities include watermelon eating and seed-spitting contests.

Tommy Irvin, Georgia’s commissioner of agriculture, said cash from the watermelon crop helps sustain farmers until they harvest their two major row crops, peanuts and cotton, in August and September.

“There’s a good market and they taste fantastic,” said Irvin, who sampled watermelons during a recent trip to the farmers market in Savannah.

Cindy Gilley, a retired teacher from Sycamore, arrived at the market with a load of Imagination watermelons, a seedless variety, and some Prontos, a seeded variety.

“We’ve had a really good season,” she said after selling some the Imaginations for $2 apiece. “They’ll move fast this week because it’s the week before the Fourth.”

She and her family grew 20 acres of watermelons and 12 acres of cantaloupes this year. They also grow cotton and peanuts.

“This is just something ... to do in the summer,” said Gilley. “We kind of need money all the time.”


On the Net:

National Watermelon Promotion Board:

React to this story:



Recommended for you