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.
Growers in Amish communities are facing many of the same issues. Wednesday at the Daviess County Produce Auction, located on CR 900E, one grower said he had hollow heart earlier in the season with melons but now he is having to spray his crop to prevent the spread of gummy stem blight.
Gummy stem or black rot, affects the leaves of both watermelon and cantaloupe vines. One of its main causes is warm, rainy weather but the disease can often be detected before the plants even leave the greenhouse. The disease causes the leaves and stems of the vines to become spotted with chocolate brown spots and then the vine dies leaving the melon susceptible to sun scald, a yellowing of the rind. Sun scald also does not change the taste of the melon but rather makes its outside appearance less desirable by most consumers.
Typically being almost one month into the melon harvest season would mean that local grocery stores would be full of locally grown melons but that hasn’t been the case. Washington Walmart currently has only locally grown personal-size watermelons from Indiana. Other watermelons, both seeded and seedless varieties, in the store were from Arkansas and Georgia.
”We get whatever they ship to us. As far as I know, we haven’t had any complaints of hollow heart with the watermelons but we haven’t gotten as many in the store this year as we have in the past,” said Dorinda Martin, Walmart produce manager. “We’ve had a lot more cantaloupe than watermelon but in the past we have had watermelons from both Knox and Posey counties in the store.”
After last years’ cantaloupe scare in Gibson County, many local stores are having to purchase their melons through a broker rather than directly from the grower. Hometown IGA in Washington is one such store.
”We buy our melons from Indianapolis Fruit,” said assistant manager Nathan Sosh. “After the scare at Chamberlain Farms last year, it really changed how we did things.”
Although the melons at IGA are purchased from Indianapolis Fruit, the melons actually originate from Vincennes. “We’ve had a few melons with hollow heart but not many and we’ve really been able to sell a lot of cut melon lately,” said Sosh.
Farmer’s markets have also been plagued by the watermelon issues. Last weeks’ cooler night temperatures caused melons to ripen slower than normal and the number of melons available for purchase at the Farmer’s Market of Historic Vincennes was down. In fact, only a handful of the produce growers had watermelons to sell and organizers of the annual seed spit contest, part of the Knox County Watermelon Festival, had to search to find a seeded melon to use for the event.
Growers are not losing all hope on the lycopene leader of all fresh fruits and vegetable though. Growers believe that after all the early on set melons are harvest the second set will be much improved due to different growing conditions than the earlier melons had.
”The weather has a lot to do with the problems we’ve had,” said Josh Holscher of J and J Farms in Oaktown.