Last year it was drought and this year it may be the rain and disease that dampers the spirits of many area watermelon producers.
Unseasonably cool temperatures combined with rain have caused many farmers along the “melon belt,” a 50-mile-long and 30-mile-wide stretch along U.S 41, to discard large portions of their crops of seedless melons.
Two issues are at the heart of the problem for most farmers — “hollow heart” and gummy stem blight. Melons with hollow heart, an internal crack in the flesh of the melon, often do not taste any different than any other melon but look different when cut. Gummy stem affects the vine but not the fruit.
”Some of the watermelons I’ve eaten with hollow heart have been some of the best I’ve had all year,” said a customer at a roadside stand just outside of Oaktown. “The melons just don’t look as nice when they’re cut.”
The separation of the heart of melon does not have a fore sure cause and there is really no way to prevent it. Some researchers believe the defect is caused by too much rain causing the the heart to expand faster than the outside of the melon since a watermelon is roughly 90 percent water, while others believe pollination problems when the melons are first setting on are to blame.
This year, even fields with several hives of honey bees for pollination and fields that do not plant on plastic or irrigation are having problems.
Many farmers were unable to find a market for the hollow-hearted melons that are considered number twos, forcing some farmers to make a touch call; pay workers to harvest melons there may not be a buyer for or not harvest and lose the field.
In Oaktown, where over 63 percent of all Indiana watermelons are grown according to the Illiana Watermelon Association, some farmers were discarding as much as 50 percent of their harvest just last week due to severe hollow heart. Certain varieties of seedless watermelons are more prone to hollow heart than others but some years, like this one, almost no variety of seedless has been excluded.