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Watermelons endure rains for timely harvest
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi's commercial watermelons appear to have avoided significant disease problems despite frequent summer showers and are ripening in time for Fourth of July picnics.
Charles Waldrup, Smith County director for Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said rains and humidity promote several diseases in watermelons. As the late spring rains steadily arrived across most of the state, growers noted only slight cases of diseases, such as gummy stem blight.
"I was expecting a disaster by now, but we haven't had any diseases to the degree we might have had with all this rain," Waldrup said. "We're not out of the woods yet, but with harvest beginning, the season is looking good."
Rains will continue to increase chances for disease on later-maturing melons and complicate harvests. Smith County has more than 700 acres of watermelons.
"The crop is looking impressive. Smith County harvests will be in full swing the last couple weeks of June and probably peak around July 1," Waldrup said. "Cloudy weather delays maturity, and rains could delay harvests if they continue."
Mississippi's watermelon acreage has declined steadily from more than 9,000 acres in the early 1990s to about 3,500 acres today.
"Over the years, growers have experienced significant increases in their cost of production. Labor, which is hard to find, is more expensive; fertilizer and seed costs have both increased," Waldrup said. "Unfortunately, the prices of melons have not increased. They have mostly remained the same."
Mark Gillie, Extension director in Greene County, said acreage is down, but yield is up because of changes in production methods. He said 90 percent of the county's crop is irrigated and grown with black plastic over the seed bed.
"More of our crop is being grown using black plastic, which almost doubles production," Gillie said. "Black plastic takes out other variables. Growers have hotter seed beds to get the crop started in, weeds are not a factor during the season, and insects that would have been attracted to the weeds are not as big of a factor."
Gillie said he is optimistic the crop has missed most diseases that could have hurt the quality and quantity of the crop.