By Linda Breazeale
MSU Ag Communications
LUCEDALE, Miss. — Mississippi watermelon growers battled frequent rains to get their crops planted and ready in time for the Fourth of July and other summer celebrations.
David Nagel, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said most of the crop is smaller and later than normal.
These watermelons at Charlie’s U-Pik near Lucedale, Mississippi, are among the earliest in the state on June 3, 2015. The majority of Mississippi’s 3,000 acres of commercial watermelons will be ripe the Fourth of July, but growers will be harvesting into August. (Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Kevin Hudson)
“If the sun doesn’t shine, the leaves don’t make sugar, plants don’t grow and we have smaller watermelons,” Nagel said. “Recent sunny days are allowing some of the crop to catch up. Melons may still be small, but they will be sweet and firm, or crisp.”
Heath Steede, an Extension agent in George County, said local growers started harvesting watermelons the first week of June. Most are on track for average yields.
“Growers managed to plant around the spring rains. Then, the rains made it hard to get into the fields and spray for diseases in a timely manner,” Steede said. “Growers usually try to follow a spray schedule to keep the diseases under control. This year, we had a little more gummy stem blight, but that wasn’t too surprising with the weather conditions.”
Steede said the peak of watermelon season is around the Fourth of July, but growers will be harvesting into August. Mississippi has about 3,000 acres of commercial watermelons.
“South Mississippi growers are usually able to start harvesting early. Everybody wants them to be ready for the Fourth, but growers will try to space out harvests into late August,” he said. “Watermelons offer growers a good chance to turn a profit, but it’s always a gamble.”
Jeff Wilson, a regional horticulture specialist at the MSU North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona, said South Mississippi watermelons are typically a few weeks ahead of those in the northern counties.
“This year, we are behind a few more weeks. I’m not seeing any ripe locally grown watermelons yet, and July 4 is probably the earliest they will be ready,” Wilson said. “Everything is running behind because of the rains and cooler temperatures.”
Wilson said rains first delayed planting and then delayed pollination. Bees cannot pollinate plants, including watermelons and tomatoes, when it is raining.
“Growers had a tough time protecting plants from diseases. If they could get into fields to spray, then the fungicides might have been washed off before providing adequate protection,” he said. “Although they will still be tasty, sweeter melons are produced when the skies are mostly sunny. The later melons should be sweeter than the first.”
Wilson said retail prices are typically between $5 and $8 each.