IMMOKALEE, Fla. — After freezes wrecked last season’s production, Florida growers are looking forward to a more typical year of spring watermelon shipments.

They’re hoping this year’s deal will be better than last year, which was harmed after January and February freezes pushed production back and caused growing regions to come in on top of each other.

Watermelon growers await more normal shipments

Doug Ohlemeier

Eddie Healy (left), quality control manager of Southern Corporate Packers Inc., Immokalee, Fla., and Brian Arrigo, president, examine newly transplanted watermelon east of Immokalee in early February.
Growers this year are eyeing more typical spring deals after last season’s freezes wrecked production and pushed shippers to send product to the market on top of other growing regions.

Brian Arrigo, president of Southern Corporate Packers Inc., said south Florida production looks to be on time for mid- to late April harvesting.

“If we don’t see any major cold weather come in or any major weather conditions, it looks like we’ll be on schedule if not a little earlier,” he said in mid-February. Because everyone came in a little late because of the weather last year, growers planted a little earlier this year.”

Arrigo said the freezes jammed up every growing region from south Florida to south Georgia and caused production to be almost a month late. He said central Florida and south Florida hit the market simultaneously and lowered prices.

Southern Corporate Packers plans to harvest south Florida watermelon from mid-April through mid-May before moving to east of Sarasota for May, and then to north Florida in the Trenton area from mid-May to mid-June. It expects to begin its Georgia production in mid-June and continue to North Carolina, Delaware, Michigan and Ontario.

Though he declined to state specifics, Arrigo said Southern Corporate Packers increased its acreage 20% this season.

McMelon Inc., Lake Wales, plans to begin harvesting in late April and early May.

Ken Wiles, general manager, said prices and quality in 2010 were strong compared to 2009, which he called a disastrous season. Wiles said heavy rains destroyed the latter part of the 2009 crop.

“We were happy to have a good year last season,” Wiles said.

Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc., said north Florida plantings in the Trenton area were beginning in mid- and late February.

He said this spring should be good for shippers as it brings a late Memorial Day, which falls on May 30.

“That sets us up well for the north Florida deal,” Lytch said in late February. “If we have an early Memorial Day, it’s tough to be at big volume for shipping for the holiday if it comes early. But this sets it up really well because it’s late again like last year.”

Because of low yields, Lytch said last season was tough. He said the fruit required extra grading to make the grade, which reduced a packer’s shippable yield.

Lytch said the deal brought an oversupply of large watermelons, which marketers had difficulty selling.

Chuck Weisinger, president and chief executive officer of broker Weis-Buy Farms Inc., Fort Myers, said he hasn’t heard of any disease threats.

“We should have normal watermelon volumes,” he said in late February. “I think we’re going to be on-time.”

In late February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported very light supplies for Mexican crossings through Texas.

The USDA reported these per-pound prices for cartons of Mexican watermelon crossing in Texas: red flesh seedless type 4s and 5s sold for 20-21 cents; 6s, 18-19 cents.

Last spring in late February, the USDA reported red flesh seedless type 4s and 5s from Mexico selling for 44 cents; 6s, 40 cents.

North Florida should remain in full production shipping for Memorial Day, going as late as it possibly can and bringing strong promotable volume, Lytch said.

South Florida production begins in the Devil’s Garden growing region north of the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation east of Immokalee, and runs through mid-May.

Production near Arcadia and Wauchula begins in early May and runs through the end of the month, while north Florida pickings near Trenton normally start in mid- to late May and go through mid- to late June before Cordele, Ga., summer harvesting typically starts in mid-June.