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Watermelons progress despite dry conditions
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- This year's watermelons relied on Mother Nature for the sunny skies to make them sweet, but most needed farmers to supply the essential irrigation to make them juicy.
Wayne Porter, area horticulture agent for Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said watermelon harvesting has begun in southern counties. Porter is based in Lauderdale County and also serves Smith County, Mississippi's top watermelon-producing county.
“Melons on nonirrigated land are small -- in the 10- to 15-pound range. Irrigated vines are producing normal-sized melons of up to 25 pounds or heavier,” Porter said. “All melons, especially the smaller ones, will be sweeter than normal because of the sunny skies and lack of rain.”
Porter said dry conditions have helped keep disease pressure down. Commercial farmers usually apply fungicides on a regular basis to prevent diseases from occurring.
Greene County Extension director Mark Gillie said some plants had a little disease pressure from gummy stem blight, possibly because of stunted development from cool May temperatures.
“Warm temperatures in May are extremely important for watermelons,” Gillie said. “The few rains we received just contributed to disease
Gillie said Greene County growers place black plastic on the ground to warm up the soil and allow for earlier plantings. Plants are still at risk of frost damage, but the beds are much warmer. Growers like to plant as early as possible to have mature melons in time for the Fourth of July.
In central and north Mississippi, early plantings are too risky, and growers rarely expect to harvest before Independence Day.
Mel Ellis of Mayhew Tomato Farm in Lowndes County said his watermelons would have to be planted by April 10 to be ready by July 4, and that is too early to risk planting. This year, north Mississipi was slowly recovering from a hard freeze at that time.
“Our watermelons will start reaching maturity around July 10, and we'll probably have a lot in late July and August,” Ellis said. “We've had great weather except for no rain. The dry conditions have kept fungus and insect problems very low, but most of the crop needs more water than I can provide with irrigation.”
Ellis said he would not consider growing watermelons if he did not have the ability to irrigate.
“The cost of irrigation will be double or triple what it was last year, but you have to do it,” he said.