Along with fireworks and patriotic music, Independence Day celebrations require watermelons – and at celebrations east of the Mississippi, that means Georgia watermelons.
“Georgia melons are on the market and ready for July 4,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Watermelon Association. “June and July are the window we fill. Watermelon territory starts in south Florida, which has an earlier season, and moves up the East Coast. Georgia melons are mature in early June through mid-July, which means most of the melons on the market around July 4 are going to be Georgia melons.”
Hall says consumers’ rising interest in nutrition is good news for watermelon growers. Watermelons are a healthy product, high in vitamins A and B6 – both good for the immune system – and in lycopene, a cancer-fighting carotenoid. Home cooks and professional chefs are finding new ways to serve watermelon in savory salads, on sandwiches, frozen into sorbets and even hot off the grill.
Georgia melons are the specialty of the Cordele State Farmers Market, the major distribution hub and shipping point for the Southeast as well as a shopping destination for melons and other fresh produce. During watermelon season, the market is open and busy from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The market moves more than 1 million watermelons from farms to buyers, to be shipped north and west, according to Jennifer Felton, market manager. During peak season, watermelons roll up by the truckload.
“We have small farmers, those with 50- to 100-acre farms, come in and bring their watermelons for sale, and the buyers pick them up and take them north where Georgia watermelons sell for big dollars,” she says. “The price was high in 2012, no less than 12 cents per pound. That’s great considering in years past the price has been as low as two or three cents per pound.”
Hall says watermelon is one of the larger commodities in Georgia, estimated as a nearly $100 million industry with roughly 25,000 acres of watermelons planted throughout the state.
Watermelons thrive in sandy or sandy loam soils, like the soil in Cordele, which claims the title of Watermelon Capital of the World for the quality and quantity of watermelons grown in the surrounding Crisp County. Georgia’s top five watermelon-producing counties are Worth, Tift, Crisp, Dooly and Wilcox.
The most popular watermelons grown in Crisp County are the juicy, seedless, red watermelons. Felton says in the 11 years she has been with the market, she’s seen watermelon varieties come and go, but the popularity of the seedless melons is consistent. Other varieties that move through the Cordele State Farmers Market include crimson sweet, sangria and yellow flesh.
Cordele celebrates all things watermelon at its annual Watermelon Days Festival, which marked its 64th year in 2012. Festival activities include the Watermelon Days Parade, Watermelon Festival Dance, the Junior Watermelon Entry Contest, the Watermelon Chunking Contest, the Big Melon & Adult Seed Spitting Contest, Singing at the Suwanee, live music and food.
Emphasizing the importance of watermelons for Georgia, the fruit leads per capita consumption of all U.S. melon crops with a 60 percent share, followed by cantaloupe and honeydew. On average, Americans eat an estimated 16 pounds of watermelon per person per year.