Minimelons may yield big profits, if you line up markets before planting

By Marni Katz

Miniature watermelons promise a lucrative niche for growers, but experienced growers and researchers say you need to do your homework and line up markets before plunging in with significant acreage.

The 3- to 7-pound personal, or palm, melons first became commercially available in 2003 and are quickly gaining favor in the produce aisle, where shoppers are willing to pay a premium for the convenience and eating quality.

Consumers have also been receptive to the high sugar and thin rind of the minimelons. And they are drawn to the product because it is just the right size for a single-meal serving without the storage and bulk issues associated with traditional seedless watermelons, says University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Shannon Mueller. Mueller, who works in Fresno County, has been involved in ongoing variety trials in California for two years and says there is strong interest in the crop among traditional San Joaquin Valley, Calif., melon growers.

Gilbert Miller, area vegetable specialist with the Clemson University's Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, S.C., has also seen increased interest among growers in the Southeast. But he cautions that because minimelons are still a highly specialized commodity, it is imperative growers have a buyer lined up before putting the seed in the ground.

Finding someone to market the crop that has inroads into the stores has to be done before the seed is planted, Miller says. It's still a specialty crop and a big investment so you want to make sure you have a buyer for it.

Know your markets before embarking

Phil Sandifer and Sons Farms in Blackville, S.C., is in its second year growing minimelons and expects again this year to grow 25 acres of them as a high-value complement to its 450-acre cantaloupe growing and packing operation.

Phil Sandifer also stresses the importance of knowing the end market for his minimelons before he puts acreage in the ground.

The best thing to do is to find somebody to buy it and then plant it. Find out how many melons your buyer needs and then decide how many acres to plant, he says. I've seen lots of my neighbors plant minis on speculation, and when the time comes to harvest they have no place to go with them.

Sandifer's cantaloupe shipper initially approached him two years ago about growing minimelons and has worked him into a rotation of growers along the Southeast coast who provide a staggered chain of supply. While the niche has been profitable, Sandifer recognizes that only the demand of his buyer can dictate how many acres he grows.

It fits my operation, because they are the same size as cantaloupes. Our trailers work, our graders work, our brushes and washers work. We can swap our line out for minis in two minutes by changing the sticker on our PLU machine, he says. We get the boxes lined up and we're ready to go.

The minimelons actually give Sandifer's year-round labor crews additional work during lulls in the conventional melon harvest. He plants the 25 acres on three staggered 7-acre plots to extend the supply he can offer his buyer.

Higher seed, harvest costs

Miller has been studying minimelons for two years and says the crop is something melon growers should consider. For the most part, minimelons are similar to traditional seedless watermelon in terms of fertility, irrigation, pest management and other production practices, Miller says.

But because of the significantly higher plant population, Miller says growers should expect significantly higher seed and harvest costs.

The cost of seed and total cost on a per-acre basis is much greater, Miller says. You are talking about $2,000 per acre just for the seed or transplants for minis vs. $1,000 for seedless watermelon.

Minimelon seed, which is not yet sold by the pound, costs an average of $300 per thousand, and growers are typically planting 4,000 to 5,000 plants per acre. That brings total seed costs to about $1,500 per acre, plus another $500 to $600 per acre for pollinator seed.

Because growers are harvesting so many more melons per acre with minis, harvest costs, too, will be higher than traditional seedless.

Growers are looking at harvesting 10,000 or more melons per acre, so labor costs and post-harvest cost of handling them and boxing them is going to be far greater than with seedless, too, Miller says. Those all add up to extra expenses.

minimelons tend to mature about three days earlier and are picked in a more condensed harvest than seedless. Sandifer says that where he might expect three pickings on a seedless watermelon field, he will get typically one large harvest and a secondary pick in the compressed minimelon harvest.

However, minis do tend to store longer under optimum cold storage conditions of 55 degrees, offering shelf life of more than three weeks.

Size is the key

Meeting the market size and box count that end-users demand is one of the biggest challenges facing minimelon growers. While traditional seedless watermelon are packed into bulk bins, minimelons are packed into specific count cartons onto a standard pallet.

Retailers expect growers to provide them with a snugly packed 2-foot carton of melons with a specified count. As a result, growers need to select the variety and plant spacing that will help them meet those size and count targets.

There's a big difference between a 5-pound and 6-pound watermelon. It doesn't sound like much but it is, Miller says. A grower can get into a pinch if the buyer says he wants five down boxes on a pallet with six melons per box and he doesn't meet that requirement because the melons are the wrong size.

On-going variety trials

Miller has been conducting ongoing variety trials in five melon production regions east of the Mississippi River and has determined that a number of promising hybrids are available that give growers the cultural and fruit quality traits they need with the right size.

Mueller also has ongoing replicated variety trials that look at standard and new varieties as they come into the California marketplace.

Replicated trials on some two dozen varieties of minimelons were conducted at research stations in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, examining size, rind thickness, Brix, yield, skin coloration and quality factors.

Of the 26 varieties Miller looked at, only one has been excluded from the third year of trial this season.

Miller studied various plant spacing configurations ranging from 9 to 20 inches. For the most part, he found few differences within that range and is, therefore, planting his trials on standard 18-inch plant spacing along 6-foot beds.

He says closer plant and row spacing helps limit the size of individual melons by providing competition. The extent of that impact on size can be variety dependent.

If the genetics aren't there for the melon to be small, doing that is not always successful, he says. So you need to have the genetics for a small melon and then control size better by closing up spacing.

In addition to size, retailers are exacting on the appearance and eating quality of the melons they will buy, Sandifer says.

Rind thickness is among the most important quality parameters being examined in Miller's trial.

Rind thickness will probably be a quality factor that down the road will knock some of these varieties out of the market, he says. We rated rind thickness from a quarter of an inch to almost an inch. Anything over a half inch we determined will not meet retail standards.

Skin coloration, sugar content and flesh firmness are also important traits being examined under the replicated trials.

Skin coloration might have an impact on consumer demand and therefore retail demand, Miller says. Most retailers have specific demands on skin color, whether it be dark green or striped. That's something the market will determine.

Handle with care

Most minimelons are also individually washed, brushed and graded, which adds a significant amount to the handling cost. The thin rind also means personal melons must be handled carefully to avoid internal bruising.

Despite some extra requirements, sources all believe there is enormous market potential for minimelons, particularly as prices ease and lure new buyers. There is also a good story to tell from a consumer nutrition standpoint as research indicates minis have even higher concentrations of the phytochemicals that make watermelon such a healthy eating choice for consumers.

The thing that's exciting about minis for me is that we are reaching a group of customer who may not have eaten watermelon before because of the bulkiness of it. I'm encouraged we are reaching consumers possibly for the first time, Miller says. G

For questions or comments about this article, contact Vicky Boyd, editor of The Grower, at (209) 571-0414 or vlboyd@att.net.


Internet Hotlinks

For detailed reports on minimelon trials through Clemson University, log onto

www.scwatermelon.com/research or www.clemson.edu/edisto

University of California trial results are available at

http://cefresno.ucdavis.edu/Vegetable_Crops. Click on 2003 mini melon research report.