Watermelon harvest delayed in Crisp County

CORDELE — In this part of the world, watermelons are king, especially this time of year.

Known as the Watermelon Capital of the World, Cordele is the prime place to get your hands on a red-ripe watermelon, a sweet staple of Southern summers. In fact, about 3,000 acres are devoted to the crop in Crisp County, which is holding the 60th annual Watermelon Days Festival through June 27.

But this year, the area’s “calling card” has faced its challenges, said Tucker Price, Crisp County’s extension agent.

Heavy spring rains, welcome across Middle Georgia after years of drought, turned into a villain for the county’s dozen or so watermelon growers, Price said.

Planting normally takes place in March, after fields are prepared and fertilized.

“The problem this year is that we had 10 to 15 inches of rain after the fields were fertilized, and it washed that away,” Price said.

The rain delayed planting, and then a cold snap pushed it back further. On top of that, high winds ripped through fields and caused more damage and delay.

The crop, normally harvested by the beginning of July, will be in later, grower Hal McCay lamented Thursday.

“We should be wide open now, but we’re just piddling,” McCay said, standing in his field and looking at a crew steadily loading watermelons on an old improvised school bus slowly chugging between rows. “Last Sunday was the first day we started cutting and loading.”

McCay said the area has had about 30 inches of rain since plants were set out back in March.

“Rain can be fine, but it can be watermelon’s worst enemy,” he said. “They’re fickle plants. It’s not an insurable crop, so it’s a big gamble.”

Watermelon plants are situated in rows on biodegradable plastic strips with edges that are then covered with soil.

“One day, soon after we set the melon plants out, the weather called for winds between 10 and 15 miles per hour,” McCay said. “Well, it was 35 to 40 miles per hour that day and blew the plastic away. Two fields went down and we had to reset them. That set us back 10 days.”

Seedless varieties are growing side-by-side with seeded watermelons, and bees imported from Illinois do the pollination, he said.

“The fields are faring better, but there are so many variables that affect the crop,” he said.

McCay said he also has to combat stem blight and fungus.

“So far, the quality is OK,” he said. “The sooner we get them out, the better off we’ll be. I’m tickled, even with all the rain and disease we’ve had.” Medium-sized and longer watermelons are usually harvested in the first cut.

The smaller watermelons will be harvested next, he said, and they’re the ones in higher demand at supermarkets. They weigh between 10 to 12 pounds each and fit more easily in the hand.

“That’s the 60-count melon, and it’s your gravy train,” he said. Sixty of the smaller melons can fit in a cardboard bin usually seen at stores and markets.

Prices are running slightly higher this year than last, Price said.

Crews gather 1,000 to 1,200 melons per acre, McCay said. Some of his crew members have been with him for more than 10 years.

In addition to watermelons, McCay said he grows cotton, peanuts and sorghum.

The 39-year-old grower said he’s been planting watermelons about 12 years. His father and grandfather were farmers too, with his grandfather having one of the last large peach groves in the county.

“I’m still considered a newcomer, but I’ve been farming ever since I could follow my dad out the door,” he said. “But there aren’t that many young people in this anymore. I guess you’ve got to grow up around it. Farming isn’t something you can learn from books.”

To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.