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Drought Reduces Melon Numbers, Improves Taste
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi watermelon growers may be frustrated with the drought that caused low numbers, but consumers are enjoying a sweeter taste from the 1998 crop.
Dr. David Nagel, horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the sunny days without rain resulted in smaller melons with more sugar.
"Vines that normally produce three to four watermelons, only produced two, but they are good," Nagel said. "Smaller and fewer melons will not have a significant impact on prices. People generally won't pay much more than $5 for a watermelon."
The month-long harvest began in mid-June, ahead of the Fourth of July peak demand period. Growers who used black plastic and/or irrigation were among the first to harvest and take advantage of early market prices.
Smith County agent Charles Waldrup said he is impressed with the crop despite the extremely dry weather. The few rains they received were timely. Very little of the Smith County crop is irrigated, but a significant amount is under black plastic to give the plants a head start early in the season and minimize weeds later.
"Smith County has about 100 acres more than last year, but we still have only about half the watermelons as in the early '90s when we planted about 1,000 acres," Waldrup said. "A lot of our growers have retired, and labor and new land are also difficult to come by."
Waldrup said the county has a reputation for a large number of quality watermelons.
An Oktibbeha County roadside stand supports that opinion with a sign reading "Smith County Watermelons." Danny Ray of Sturgis drove to Mize for a load to sell in the Starkville area.
"I've always heard Smith County had the sweetest melons. This year's dry weather should have made them even sweeter," Ray said.
George County agent Kerry Johnson said they did not receive as many timely rains. Fortunately, the lack of rain resulted in significantly less disease pressure than last year.
"We've had a couple of tough years. Last year we had so much rain the diseases were hard to manage," Johnson said. "If this year's crop wasn't irrigated, it will be down in size and numbers."