Melons really do grow in Adams County

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 28, 2010

NATCHEZ — A field of watermelons doesn’t look like much more than a morass of vines and weeds. Once the vines start growing, they branch out in all directions, consuming acreage while their fruit grows close to the ground.

“When I started this, we had so many people tell us watermelons will not grow in Adams County,” farmer Larry Allen said as he drove his truck around a field of melon vines. “Can you imagine that?”

As part of the duo — the other half is Jerome Arnold — who set out to resurrect the Adams County watermelon, Allen has seemingly proven his critics wrong with the six watermelon fields he and Arnold planted around the Kingston area.

During the winter, the two cultivated 4,000 seedlings, and once spring rolled around they took to the fields.

They took soil samples and sent them to Mississippi State University, and the school recommended that they fertilize the fields with an 8-24-24 mixture.

After working the ground the first time, they fertilized and planted, and then fertilized again. From there, it was a matter of letting nature take its course.

That includes having bees to pollinate the vines. Proper watermelon pollination requires an average of six trips to a single flower, and Allen said they convinced a landowner to keep his beehives in a pasture near one of their fields.

“When you see these bowling pin-shaped watermelons, those are the result of poor pollination,” Allen said.

And, now that the bees have done their work, Allen and Arnold have fields rife with melons that have a sweet flesh that drips its sugary water the instant teeth meet meat.

“The old folks say that the drier the year the sweeter the melon, and I believe it,” Allen said.

There may be something to the old folks’ saying. Watermelon sweetness is measured on the Brix scale, and on years when it’s drier — much like this year — the Brix scale rating for melons actually is higher, Arnold said.

Getting those melons to market means that the partners have to wake up early and — with the help of five or six local teenagers — start picking melons at 6 a.m. to beat the heat.

Allen and Arnold work their way down the rows, cutting ripe melons from the vines and rotating them so their yellow bellies are turned upward to let the teenage workers know the melons have been cut and are ready to be toted to the truck.

Once they’re harvested, the melons are sold by the truckload to vendors in Adams County, Concordia Parish and Wilkinson County. They can be bought locally at Wells Produce in Natchez and at Diane Turner’s stand in Vidalia.

The watermelon-growing duo said next year they plan to try a new system in which the watermelons will be grown under a plastic cover and irrigated. They won’t be able to use the same fields because crops in the watermelon family can pick up a soil-based fungus if the fields they’re planted in aren’t rotated.

Last year, they planted a few more than 300 vines. After this year’s large-scale success, Allen said they are going to try to establish a market for an Adams County seedless watermelon.

And while what started a couple of years ago as a retirement project for two friends has certainly grown, it’s been a fun experience, Arnold said.

“We won’t get rich doing this, but that’s not the point,” he said.