Watermelons plentiful for holiday weekend

FOOD_WATERMELON_20486369By Errol Castens
Daily Journal

TUPELO – It’s a long time since spring, but its late arrival and cool temperatures are favoring Northeast Mississippians who want watermelons for their Labor Day celebrations.

Farmers in the region typically try to plant the heat-loving vine as soon as the soil is dependably warm.

“We had so much rain that we couldn’t get into the fields until late,” said Thomas Wimberly of the Clear Creek community in Lafayette County.

“It was so wet, but my friend James Durham has a big tractor, and when we got a couple of pretty days he got in there and cut my field for me, and we planted it,” Wimberly said.

Growers farther south usually aim to get watermelons in time for the big Fourth of July demand, but Wimberly said he aims for mid-July.

With an earlier crop, he said, “You’re taking a big chance. When you need to get them planted for that, you’re still subject to frost. I have tried it, though.”

This year’s late spring pushed back Wimberly’s first harvest to early August, but he said as long as the weather is hot, he doesn’t expect demand to drop after the holiday.

“They haven’t had any watermelons much around (until recently), so now people keep coming back for them,” he said.

While customers were eagerly paying $3 to $6 for Wimberly’s watermelons, anecdotal evidence points to some sellers cutting prices sharply to encourage sales.

“This spring was unusually cool and wet. This has delayed many crops, including watermelon,” said Rick Snyder, research professor with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “I think you are seeing a time shift from earlier watermelon sales to later sales on the roadsides. Demand is not as high this time of year.”

New Albany grower Tim Burress said while the season is late for everybody, the prices don’t necessarily reflect a soft market. His largest watermelons sell for $5, but he aims for a mix that includes smaller ones that he can profitably sell at $2.

Man Tang and Steven Lee of Oxford didn’t hesitate to pay $3 for each of three small yellow-meated melons from Wimberly. Tang, however, remembered 2012, when he was the beneficiary of one late-season surplus.

“Last year we bought 20 of these, because (someone) had them for $1,” he said.

errol.castens@journalinc.com