Watermelon Field Day 2017-5

Watermelon Field Day at Edisto Research and Education Center in 2017 included a close-up look at varieties of cantaloupe and honeydew as well as other specialty melons.


In addition to corn, Scotty Sandifer of Sandifer and Son's Farm grows fruits and vegetables in Bamberg County.

He has cucumbers (100 acres), zucchini (40 acres), yellow squash (40 acres), watermelon (250 acres), mini-seedless watermelon (80 acres) and honeydews (40 acres) and cantaloupe, which is considered his staple crop. Most of the crop is drip-irrigated.

"Cucumbers were good," he said. "We had some good growing weather and there were favorable markets."

Zucchini and yellow squash also benefited from timely rains and a good market with prices of about $16 a bushel to $20 a bushel. He said prices were up from 2016.

Cantaloupe benefited from "ideal weather conditions," Sandifer said.

"We had good rains and good temperatures," he said, noting the cantaloupe market was also above average. "We had cold weather in Georgia, which pushed them back. We had good markets on the entire East Coast."

For his watermelon crop, Sandifer said the crop was good from June through July but tailed off in August.

"But we were just about wrapped up," he said.

Watermelon prices were about 18 to 20 cents a pound.

"That is good," he said.

Mini-seedless watermelons also had a good year with timely rains and temperatures during the crucial fruit-set period.

As far as honeydews, Sandifer said the first part of June was a great market due to weather challenges in California. Thereafter, it fell off.

"But when they did come in, they grow thousands and thousands of acres," Sandifer said. "They ship them over here for nothing and we can't compete with their quality of honeydews."

A broader view of fruits and vegetables in Bamberg County reveals the most common crops grown include: watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini squash, sweet potatoes, some tomatoes, peppers, greens, sweet corn and strawberries.

Wallace said about 93 acres of dryland sweet potatoes were planted along with 6 acres of irrigated.

"Crop conditions were favorable and yields were good," he said.

Planted acreage for each crop was similar to that planted in 2016 with a couple of exceptions," said Dr. Gilbert Miller, Clemson Extension area vegetable specialist. "A couple of additions in 2017 were commercial acreage of honeydew melons and organic sweet potatoes. Also fall-planted acreage of watermelons continues to increase."

Miller described crop yields for 2017 as "very good."

"The late spring freeze that decimated the peach and blueberry crops and significantly hurt the pick-your-own strawberry plantings also damaged a few fields of early planted vining crops," he said.

But the late spring freeze also caused an unexpected problem with managed honeybee colonies used for pollinating many fruit and vegetable crops.

"The spring freeze occurred during the critical buildup period for honeybee colonies," he said. "The queen bee is actively laying eggs during this time and the colony bee numbers are increasing considerably. Not only were peach, blueberry and strawberry flowers frozen, but much of the native wildflower population was frozen as well."

As a result, Miller said the food source (nectar and pollen) for honeybees was "annihilated."

"Beekeepers had to provide sugar water for managed bee colonies to ensure strong hives for pollinated fruit and vegetable crops," he said.

But beyond the late freeze, Miller said weather conditions in 2017 were fairly consistent.

"There was no excessive heat and although there were dry periods where drip irrigation was critical to crop growth, dry conditions were not excessive overall in 2017," he said.

Weather conditions produced a good watermelon crop.

"In some years when the watermelon crop is blooming and pollination is occurring, hot temperatures can interfere with successful watermelon fruit set," Miller said. "During the watermelon fruit-set period in 2017, temperatures were mild, below 90 degrees Farhenheit, yielding a very good fruit set for watermelons and other vining crops."

Miller said one unique thing about the 2017 watermelon crop was its size.

The average size of the watermelons produced in 2017 was larger than normal," he said. "This wouldn’t seem like a problem but the commercial market, the consumer preference, is a melon which weighs around 15 pounds. The average size watermelon produced in 2017 was larger but since it was so widespread, it did not cause a marketing problem."

As consumers try to be more health conscious, the watermelon market has also changed. It has become a year-round market.

"Historically the watermelon market peaked for July 4th sales and although sales around the July 4th holiday continue to be strong, the watermelon market in recent years remains bullish post-July 4th sales," Miller said. "This increase in consumer demand for watermelons means there is more acreage of fall-planted watermelons in the county."

Miller said consumer demand for prepackaged cut melons has also increased dramatically in recent years. Some of the watermelon, cantaloupe and specialty melons grown in the county are being sold for cut-melon market sales, he said.

Overall the market for most fruits and vegetables grown in Bamberg County was adequate in 2017, Miller said.

"As always happens with the market, there will be periods of high market prices and periods of low market prices," he said. "Many growers make successive plantings of their various fruits and vegetables to not only provide their buyers produce for an extended period of time, but it also helps to spread market risk and hopefully hit more high market prices than low."

Miller said cucumbers and yellow squash prices were similar to 2016.

"The market was fairly consistent, not a lot of volatility," he said. Fluctuations in the cantaloupe market in 2017 were more pronounced. We did experience some periods of cantaloupe market price below production costs in 2017 but also had prices well above production costs as well."

As to the honeydew market, Miller said 2017 was "exceptional" due to production challenges elsewhere.

"We did have some production problems in Bamberg County with honeydews but those harvested did sell for a premium price," he said.

Miller said the year also saw its normal and expected insect and disease issues. The challenges were successfully addressed through adequate control measures, Miller said.


As far as new research opportunities at the Blackville-based Edisto Research and Education Center, Miller said the sweet potato research program initiated in 2017 continued at EREC in 2017.

"We evaluated 14 varieties of sweet potatoes," he said. "Commercial sweet potato production does not routinely employ irrigation."

Miller said research has investigated the possibility of using drip irrigation in sweet potato production.

"The results look promising and the research will continue in 2018," Miller said.

Miller said research continues on pumpkin varieties as well.

"Hot conditions during the pumpkin flowering period in late July and early August can dramatically reduce pumpkin fruit set," he said. "We continue to look for pumpkin varieties which can dependably withstand these hot conditions and set adequate numbers of pumpkins."

And of course, watermelon research continues as it does on an annual basis.

"We plant a watermelon variety trial with 25 or more different watermelon varieties each year," he said. "It is important to know the yield and fruit quality characteristics of these new varieties and how well they withstand the hot humid weather conditions of the Southeast. Often watermelon varieties developed in arid conditions of the West cannot withstand the increased disease pressure of the Southeast."

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.


Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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