TRENTON, Fla. —  Buyers should expect higher prices for this summer’s watermelon deal as continuous rains slice Southeastern volume.

After heavy rains delayed plant setting, grower-shippers expect volume to be down by 25% to 33% and a later than normal Georgia start.

Though some south Georgia growers in the Tifton and Valdosta areas had began harvesting in mid-June, May and early June rains have delayed the start of the Cordele, Ga. deal.

Greg Leger, president and partner of Cordele-based Leger & Son Inc., said Cordele-area harvest should start June 20-22, about two weeks later than normal.

Leger said he expects up to a third in yield losses. He said fields in which crews picked up to 60,000 pounds per acre this past season might not even be able to yield 40,000 pounds per acre this season.

Some production areas have been soaked since January with up to 30-40 inches of rain. Leger said the heavy rains affected vines and prevented fruit from setting. Because water was on some fields for so long, roots don’t go deep.

“It will be a mad dash to the Fourth of July,” Leger said June 16. “We will go into the Fourth of July a little bit short, but there should be fruit after the Fourth as well.”

Lower Southeastern watermelon yields bump up prices
Doug Ohlemeier

Workers pack seedless watermelons at Billy Smith’s Watermelons Inc., Trenton, Fla. Northern Florida prices have been high because of a later than normal Georgia start. Continuous rains have also cut yields.

To keep the pipeline moving and not become backlogged with product, with the holiday falling on a Saturday, Leger said he hopes as many shoppers buy watermelon the week after July 4.

As northern Florida production was winding down, grower-shippers expected prices to remain on the high side.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture June 16 reported northern Florida harvests delayed by rain and wet fields.
Red seeded watermelon from that region sold for $16-18 for 24-inch bins per cwt. of 35s while red flesh seedless 36s, 45s and 60s sold for $17-20.

That’s higher than last season when in mid- to late June 24-inch bins per cwt. of red flesh seedless 35s and 60s from northern Florida sold for $13-14 and 45s were $15-16. Red seeded 35s sold for $14-15 while 45s went for $12-13.

Natures Choice Produce Inc., Pensacola, began packing from Malone, northwest of Tallahassee near the Alabama-Florida border, on June 12. The packer finished packing from the Williston and Dunnellon areas, west of Ocala, the same day.

Doug Dickerson, owner, said quality is high but he has had to grade out a lot of misshapen fruit.

“Anytime you get the kind of rain we’ve received when the crops are trying to set, you lose part of your pollination,” he said June 15. “There’s enough pollen for the watermelon to stick, but not enough to make 100% good quality and good shaped fruit.”

Dickerson said he expects his deal to produce 25%-30% fewer melons. Some fields, he said, may sustain losses as high as 50% while others may suffer closer to 25% in yield reductions.

Dickerson said he planned to pack from Malone to mid-July while Leger expects to finish pickings shortly after July 4.

Northern Florida production, which was going strong in mid-June, was expected to finish June 20-26, about two weeks later than normal.

Lower Southeastern watermelon yields bump up prices
Doug Ohlemeier

Vince Arrigo, a produce broker working with Immokalee, Fla.-based Southern Corporate Packers Inc., left and Jesse Arrigo, a salesman with Southern Corporate Packers’ Trenton, Fla. operation, display seedless watermelons in the company’s Trenton Farmers Market packing shed. Jesse Arrigo says this year’s north Florida watermelon is producing solid and gorgeous fruit.

Because the north Florida region, which stretches from Wildwood on the south to Live Oak on the north, was the primary producing area in early June, grower-shippers were enjoying higher than normal prices.

Billy Smith, owner of Billy Smith’s Watermelons Inc., said prices had risen from 10 cents a pound for seeded and 12 cents a pound for seedless in early June to 16 cents a pound for seeded and 18 cents a pound for seedless in mid-June.

Smith attributed the increase to rain harming the end of central and south Florida’s production and delaying the start of Georgia pickings.

He said the rain and overcast days hasn’t helped northern Florida melon growth.

“Quality has been great,” he said. “We have had 10 trouble loads out of 400.”

Billy Smith’s Watermelons sells from its 300 Florida acres and buys from growers in Georgia, Indiana, Texas and Delaware.

Jesse Arrigo, a salesman for Immokalee-based Southern Corporate Packers Inc.’s Trenton operation, characterized north Florida watermelons as high quality.

“It’s real solid and gorgeous fruit that’s bricking above 12-13,” he said.  “You’d better have a shot of insulin, as the brix is so high.”

Arrigo said the north Florida deal initially produced some melons suffering from the hollow heart disease but graders quickly graded-out the defect.

Southern Corporate Packers plans to pack watermelons from Trenton through June 20 before switching to Cordele.