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Today is September 16, 2021

The sweetest slice: Smith County Watermelons

By Steven Ward

The sweetest slice: Smith County Watermelons

Mississippi residents start calling Smith County watermelon farmer Kevin Ford in January with questions.

What does the crop look like this year? How much will the watermelons cost? Can they be placed on a waiting list to buy them?

Never mind the crop won’t be harvested for another five months.

“We tell them, call back after Easter,” Ford, 59, said recently standing on the land of his Taylorsville-area family farm, Ford Farms.

Ford, a right-of-way manager at Southern Pine Electric and a 37-year-veteran of the co-op, has also run his farm during his entire career.

Ford, whose 89-year-old father also was a farmer, grew up growing tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, corn and, of course, watermelons.

Not just any watermelons either.

Mississippians love Smith County watermelons.

What is so special about Smith County watermelons?

“Everybody says it’s something about the soil here. I don’t know. But everyone says they have to have a Smith County watermelon,” Ford said.

Donna Beliech, a Mississippi State University Extension Service horticulturist, said there might be something to the soil theory.

“Smith County watermelons are known statewide for being sweet and of ‘top grade.’ The history of Smith County producing the best watermelons must be due to the location (soil) and a grower’s ability (knowledge), because the same handful of varieties are grown throughout Mississippi,” Beliech said.

The seeded varieties are mainly ‘Jubilee,’ ’Crimson Sweet’ and ‘Charleston,’ she said. These watermelons are usually 20 to 30 pounds and green with dark stripes and have a sweet, red flesh.

What this year’s crop looks like, like every year, depends on the weather.

“The weather often determines the successfulness of a crop. Cool, wet springs are not good for watermelon growers. For one thing, you shouldn’t sow seeds until the soil temperature 4-inch deep is 60 to 65 degrees. Fields of watermelon can be destroyed when weather conditions favor the development of disease,” Beliech said.

“From transplant to flowering is 45 days. In Central Mississippi, you should have plants in the ground by April 1. All watermelons are pollinated by bees and require about 45 days from pollination to fruit maturity.”

Ford didn’t have an exact number of watermelons he grows and harvests each year, but he said the number is in the thousands.

Beliech said there are currently 38 watermelon growers in the state.

Although information on watermelon production at the county level is limited for Mississippi, based on the most recent Census of Agriculture data from 2017, it’s estimated that the area of watermelon planted for the fresh market in Smith County is approximately 240 acres, with a value of production estimated at around $1.4 million,

Mississippi State Extension Service agriculture economist Elizabeth Canales said.

The retail price for a large, seeded watermelon is $1.10 to $1.30 per pound. A small round, seedless watermelon is currently going for $4 to $7 at grocery stores, Beliech said.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the major watermelon producing states are Texas, Florida, Georgia and California. These states produce an average of 3.5 billion pounds with an annual value around $501.7 million. Mississippi watermelon production averages less than 1% of the total U.S. market share.

“Our annual production is around 3.8 million pounds each year, which is worth about $4.3 million,” Beliech said.

Smith County watermelons might represent a tiny piece of the U.S. market, but ask anyone in Mississippi and they will tell you that small fraction happens to taste sweeter than all the rest.

“We sell them until they run out. And when they run out, they run out,” Ford said.

And by the way, Ford said he doesn’t have a waiting list for his watermelons.

For more information about Ford’s watermelons, call 601-422-0098.

 

Tips for picking the best watermelon:

  • Look for ones that are evenly shaped, with no cuts or bruises.
  • Lift the watermelon• Look for ones that are evenly shaped, with no cuts or bruises.
  • Lift the watermelon. It should be heavy for its size.
  • Look at the ‘ground spot’ to make sure it is creamy yellow in color. It should be heavy for its size.
  • Look at the ‘ground spot’ to make sure it is creamy yellow in color.

 

Other watermelon fun facts:

  • Watermelons are 92% sugary, sweet water.
  • Only 3/4 of a watermelon is edible. 1 pound = 3 cups.
  • Watermelons ripen only slightly after picking.
  • Cut watermelon will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.
  • Watermelons contain powerful antioxidants making them a healthy summer treat.

 

43rd Mississippi Watermelon Festival

  • Downtown Mize, Mississippi
  • July 16 and 17
  • Friday: Adults, $5, Children under 10, $3
  • Saturday: Adults, $10, Children under 10, $5
  • Gates open 3:30 p.m. on Friday
  • 8:30 a.m. on Saturday
  • Annual fundraiser for the Mize Volunteer Fire Department
  • Details: mswatermelonfestival.com
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