Published on 06/19/03

Rain could wash out Georgia watermelon crop

By Faith Peppers
The University of Georgia

As the Fourth of July nears, abundant rains are trickling danger into Georgia watermelon fields.

"Right now the crop looks OK," said Terry Kelley, an extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "But we need the faucet to turn off. It could certainly go downhill real quick if we keep getting rain."

The biggest problem with rain on watermelons is not the water on the melons but trouble on the vine.

"You increase the disease pressure on the vines and it's hard to keep diseases in check," Kelley said. "Once the vines start to decline, the watermelons can be exposed to sun damage and get burn on the rind."

Sun damage can discolor the rind, making the melon unmarketable.

Rain, rain, go away

The promise of soaking showers across the state is bad enough. But in south Georgia, where most of Georgia's watermelons are grown, there's the constant threat of afternoon thundershowers.

"Even when we have warm sunny days we get those afternoon thunderstorms, and that's just as bad because the vines go into the nighttime wet," Kelley said.

Wet vines at night set up conditions for disease to invade.

Picking tasty melons

Good-tasting melons are hard to detect in the store, Kelley said.

"About the only way you know if you have a good melon, is to cut it open and taste it," he said. It may look fine on the outside, but taste is all in the growing.

"Picking a good melon in the store is probably the hardest thing for anybody to do," he said. "You have to count on growers harvesting optimally mature melons in the field."

Another drawback to cloudy, wet conditions is the negative impact on melons' flavor.

"You have more water in the ground that the melon takes up," Kelley said, "and with less sunshine they produce less sugar, so the flavor is diluted."

What's your taste?

When picking a good melon, variety doesn't matter much. It's a matter of preference.

"We grow several varieties in Georgia," Kelley said. "One of the reasons is consumers have such varied preferences. Some want the older-type, gray melon which is a light green all over. More predominant on the market these days are the striped melons."

Then you have seedless vs. seeded melons. "More and more of the market each year is going toward the seedless melons," he said.

Seedless melons aren't really seedless. They have immature seed coats that are edible.

"In Georgia, we're probably only growing 35 to 40 percent seedless," Kelley said. "On the West Coast it's closer to 90 to 95 percent."

Georgia grows 35,000 to 40,000 acres of watermelons, worth between $50 million and $60 million.

Good melon values

Prices for this year's melons have been good for growers and should still be a good value for shoppers.

"We have experienced some higher-than-average prices because the Florida crop was short," Kelley said.

Consumer prices will vary from store to store but should range from $2.99 to $4.99 per melon.

"That's not uncharacteristic for prices this time of year," he said. "Prices usually drop a little after July Fourth, and that may not happen this year if we don't get a break with the weather."

Growers have their fingers crossed for some drying conditions over the next week.

"We're generally sitting on a pretty good crop if the weather holds up," Kelley said. "We may not get quite the yields we would get in a better year, but from average to above average. But, if we continue to get these wet conditions, that could change dramatically."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.