North Carolina Melons
North Carolina has mastered the making of melons. From watermelons to cantaloupes, the state supplies millions to the good Americans who crave them. The eastern half of the United States relies on North Carolina to satisfy its summertime melon cravings from about the Fourth of July to Labor Day, when Southern producers have finished harvesting for the season. North Carolina has responded in abundance. In 2018, the state’s farmers produced 182.5 million pounds of watermelon and 30.6 million pounds of cantaloupe. This production exceeds the state’s three-year average and consistently ranks North Carolina as a top 10 producing state in both melon types, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NAAS).
Crazy for Cantaloupe
Nick Augostini, assistant director of horticulture and seafood for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, says that when it comes to cantaloupe, the state’s farmers primarily grow Athena, a high-yielding variety known for its sweetness. But historical roots are not forgotten, as the citizens of Ridgeway still celebrate their small town’s historic heirloom, the Ridgeway cantaloupe. Locals share how, in the early 1900s, trainloads of this small cantaloupe variety traveled north to the luxury New York hotel Waldorf Astoria, and even to Washington, D.C., for a dinner between President Roosevelt and King George VI before World War II. Warren County celebrates the melon annually in July with the Ridgeway Cantaloupe Festival.
See more: Cantaloupe Salad
North Carolina watermelons have evolved to successfully meet consumer demand while increasing production in the state.
“The biggest change in the last 20 years is going from the seeded to the seedless watermelons,” Augostini says. “About 90% of production is seedless in North Carolina and 10% is seeded. Here in North Carolina, people that live in the state prefer the seeded to the seedless. People in the Northern states like the seedless.”
Statewide, watermelon growers are switching to more “personal watermelons,” or fruits sized to fit in the fridge, says Freddie Ellis of Sun Up Produce and a third-generation sales broker in the produce business. Those smaller fruits also come with thinner rinds, challenging growers to reduce damage at harvest and transportation. Ellis says the smaller melons give retailers an ideal price point for a melon that arrives 60 melons to a crate versus 45.
“In North Carolina, we’re blessed to have a lot of local big chain stores based in the state,” says Ellis, also a board member of the North Carolina Watermelon Association. “That helps us tremendously. They support our growers very well during the season. And as far as watermelon taste and quality, North Carolina is as good as anyone.”
See more: How to Pick Out a Perfect Watermelon