Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
DIDO – It’s a bright, warm summer morning in a field not far from this Vernon Parish community between Elizabeth and Pitkin.
A line of teenage boys tromp through the field, hefting 20-pound watermelons to each other in bucket brigade fashion until the melons are stacked in a trailer. Soon, you might see these emerald orbs sold out of a pickup on the side of a highway.
This crop is grown by Jason Green, one of several melon producers in the area of Beauregard, Vernon and Allen parishes. He has melon patches scattered around the Pitkin-Sugartown area. His largest field this year is 35 acres, and he needs a crew of 12-14 young men for harvest.
The drought and unseasonably cool weather in April and May this year has limited production so some fields will only get picked 4-5 times. “In a good year, you should be able to pull this field seven times.”
Jason wants night-time temperatures above 70 degrees. “Watermelons grow the most at night, and in the day is when they ripen.”
He said most groceries around here get their melons from south Texas where they are grown with drip irrigation, and they are picked before ripeness. “If you buy at a grocery store, chances are it’s not a high-quality melon.”
He refuses to irrigate, believing any moisture besides rain results in an inferior melon. “To keep the quality, I have to take whatever Mother Nature gives me.”
He was hoping that Tropical Storm Cristobal would have dropped a couple inches of rain on his fields but that didn’t happen.
He also doesn’t use pesticides because he said he doesn’t have much of an insect or disease problem, but he does use commercial fertilizer at planting.
Pigs, crows and racoons that eat the melons are a problem, he said.
Keith Hawkins, LSU AgCenter county agent in Beauregard Parish, said a grower was dealing with deer feeding on the melons, and the grower solved the problem by using lion manure, obtained from the Alexandria Zoo, as a repellent.
Hawkins said watermelons prefer sandy soil that drains well. “Heavy soil wouldn’t be good for watermelons.”
Jason said the area’s sandy soil with a pH close to neutral contributes to the quality of his product too.
Green rents his fields, and he only uses a field once every 7 years to allow the ground to replenish nutrients. “A watermelon takes more out of the ground than any other crop.”
Black plastic sheeting is used on the raised beds to hold moisture in the sandy soil, and to reduce growth of grasses.
He uses a few varieties. “I have a couple but I keep them to myself because of competition.” He will reveal that he relies on an old standy-by variety, Royal Sweet.
Most grocery store watermelons are good for several weeks, he said.
His watermelons start as seedlings grown in a greenhouse, then transplanted between March 25 and April 12. A late frost could set back planting., and he watches pecan trees for the green buds that tell him winter is gone.
His fields are planted at different times so he’ll have a good supply for much of the summer, and he saved a big field to supply the July 4 holiday demand.
Just as he expected, business for this year’s Independence Day was hectic but good. “It was crazy. We thought it was going to settle down but we’re blowing and going.”
Ripeness is critical for the sweetness. Jason said most groceries sell out-of-state melons picked long before they are ripe so they can withstand transport time and have longer shelf life.
Green said his watermelons are ready to be eaten right away because they are picked at peak ripeness, and they only have a shelf life of about a week. “That’s why we’re known for sweet watermelons.”
He looks for three things to indicate ripeness: What are those indicators? “The curl, the yellow belly and the sound it makes when you thump it. We don’t pick a watermelon unless it’s got all three signs.”
The curl is a small spiral stem growing opposite the stem where the melon is attached to the vine.
Green said it’s essential for the curl to be brown and shriveled. But Jason said this sign alone can’t be used for a ripeness indicator. “It will lie to you in a wet season.”
The second criteria: the melon has to have a yellowish tinge on the bottom. A yellow belly.
Finally, he said, a thump that rings with the correct sound provides another sign of ripeness confirmation. “It’s got to have a good deep bass sound.”
In comparison, a thump on a nearby melon that’s obviously not ripe gives a tone a few notes higher.
When the ripe melons are chosen, the platoon of melon tossers take to the field. The boys take turns slinging the melons to load a wagon that’s pulled slowly across the field. To keep the boys from getting tuckered out (tired arms are likely to drop watermelons) they rotate out after about 20 throws.
Green doesn’t have any trouble getting a work crew of 8-12 melon chunkers among local high school boys looking to make some money. He has a waiting list. “I have 20 kids wanting to work.”
Jason has been in the business for 21 years.
He went to McNeese on a baseball scholarship for 18 months. “My grades weren’t that good. I was having too much fun.”
He came home to Leesville to help his father, Mark Green, hang sheetrock.
Around 1998, he said his grandfather, the Rev. M.C. Green, suggested he plant a field of watermelons to make extra money. “I’d hang sheetrock by the day and pick watermelons at night.”
He sold his crop on the highways around Leesville, and the next year he landed a deal with Big Star Grocery from Many that stocked his melons in groceries in Zwolle, Many and Leesville. Each grocery took 200 melons twice weekly.
A couple years later, he met veteran watermelon farmer Corbett Gibson from Sugartown and they hit it off as partners for 15 years until Jason bought Gibson’s watermelon stand at the intersection of La. Highways 112 and 113 at Sugartown.
Jason said his wife, Jamie, who runs their stand at Leesville, has boosted sales considerably by promoting the watermelons on Facebook on the “Sugartown Watermelon Stand” page. “She’s the one who has boosted our sales. Facebook almost doubled our sales.”
Their stands also have tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, along with honey and mayhaw jelly. Their cantaloupes just ripened too.
When Jason pulls up with a load of melons, wholesale buyers are lined up to get a truckload for sales on the highways around southwest Louisiana.
“I can pull up with a load of watermelons and in an hour they’ll be gone. Fourth of July, there’s people parked all along the road.”
Watermelon vendors dot the roadsides throughout Louisiana. John Bordelon of Moreauville sells Sugartown watermelons in Avoyelles Parish, often on Louisiana Highway 1 in front of the LSU AgCenter Extension Office. He buys from another grower, David Noland, who raises melons near Pitkin, although he has bought some from Jason.
Bordelon said people are less likely to buy watermelons on a cloudy day. “On a good hot, humid Louisiana day, you can sell melons.”
He said he’s sold as many as 50 in one day.
County Agent Hawkins said a buyer should ask a few questions of a roadside seller --- like where the melons were grown, who was the grower and when were they picked –to make sure the fruit is genuine Sugartown.
Jason is fully aware that less scrupulous sellers falsely claim their product is from Sugartown, but he said there’s not a lot he can do about that. He said he’s gotten calls from as far away as the Carolinas about bogus Sugartown sellers.
“The one thing I can tell you, is to come to Sugartown, Louisiana, and you’ll get one from here.”