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Mother Nature threw watermelon growers a loop in 2019, causing a change in the crop's typical harvest season.

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The crop was not significantly hurt by the change, but growers did have to alter harvesting contracts to accommodate the extended harvest season.

"Weather conditions during late May and early June, when the watermelon plant was attempting to set fruit, were unseasonably hot with very low humidity," said Dr. Gilbert Miller, Clemson Extension Service area vegetable specialist. "During fertilization or watermelon fruit set, multiple grains of pollen are deposited on the watermelon female bloom, which is receptive for only one day."

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"Multiple pollen tubes must then grow down through the style and into the ovary, resulting in fertilization and watermelon fruit set," Miller said. "Temperatures above 86 degrees Fahrenheit can result in pollen tube abortion. Low humidity acerbates the problem."

From May 24 through early June, there was limited watermelon fruit set, Miller said.

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"The loss of the watermelon fruit set during late May and early June was widespread, causing the watermelon plant to enter a more pronounced vegetative stage," Miller said. "The plant was not hurt but fruit set was delayed and the watermelon harvest season was extended."

But despite the change, Miller said watermelon planted acreage, including spring and fall planting, was similar to previous years. A total of about 3,000 was planted locally.

Miller said overall watermelon yields were about or slightly above average in 2019.

"Although there is a greater consumer demand for watermelons around July 4th, the seasonal watermelon market has expanded and consumers are wanting watermelons year round," Miller said. "Consequently fall production of watermelons in the tri-county area has increased."

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Miller explained that producing fall watermelons is more difficult than spring production because of pest and disease problems.

"Fruit set can be problematic with the hotter weather conditions experienced during August," he said. "Yields are not as great but the price this year for late-season watermelons was excellent."

The demand for prepackaged cut melons has increased dramatically in recent years and some of the watermelons, cantaloupes and specialty melons grown in the region are being sold for cut melon sales.

Dry conditions during the growing season were also entrenched but the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables grown commercially in Bamberg County are drip irrigated.

Miller said research has shown that a well-managed drip-irrigated and fertigated (nutrients added through drip irrigation) field can be a tremendous asset toward high yields and excellent quality produce.

The market for most local fruits and vegetables is primarily one of exports.

Watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, greens, sweet corn, strawberries and blueberries  are generally shipped out of the area, but some -- such as tomatoes, greens and sweet corn -- is sold close to the region and in the state, such as at the state farmers market in Columbia.

A broader view of fruits and vegetables in Bamberg County reveals the most common crops grown other than watermelons are cantaloupes, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, greens, sweet corn and strawberries.

Details on the condition or status of these other crops in Bamberg County for 2019 were not available.

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

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