One month ago, watermelon production in southeast Mississippi was on track.
Now, growers there have lost much of their crop to the summer’s wet weather.
“The weather and what it would do was my one concern this year,” said Heath Steede, Mississippi State University Extension agent in George County. “I knew if it kept raining, we could lose a good bit of the crop, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Growers in the southeast corner of the state, where most of Mississippi’s watermelons are grown, have endured excess crop loss this year. At least one George County grower lost 75% of his crop, and Steede estimates all other growers in the area will face approximately equal losses.
“You’ll find that kind of loss in all of the counties around here that have any watermelon production,” he said. “I was in several of our fields in mid-June. I saw some of the prettiest watermelons I’d seen in a long time. But when the rain started, it just kept coming every day. And it’s still raining.”
Watermelons require the right mix of rain, sun and warm weather to reach peak size and sweetness. Rains early in the growing season help melons grow to the proper size, but too much rain later in the season can introduce disease and cause melons to ruin.
“What I’m seeing are a lot of watermelons with water spots,” Steede said. “They’re just rotting in the fields. You’ll look at them one day, and you’ll think they are OK. Then, two days later they’ll have a water-soaked spot that starts leaking.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Crop Progress and Condition Report issued for the week ending July 18, 71% of watermelons were harvested compared to 78% in 2020. The previous week’s report, the latest to include watermelon crop condition, showed 66% of the crop was in good condition.
However, Steede said growers in southeast Mississippi fall into the poor and very poor condition categories. Thirteen percent of the crop was listed in fair condition, 12% in poor condition and 10% in very poor condition.
Smith County grower Kevin Ford is one of those growers. He estimates he lost two-thirds of his crop this year to the heavy rainfall.
“We got between nine and 10 inches of rain in one day,” he said. “This is the worst crop we’ve had in a long time. We were able to harvest some watermelons. But most of the melons would look like they were going to do well, and then they just couldn’t get any size on them. Then they’d fall off the vine.”
Pete Rutland, another Smith County producer, experienced the same problems and is hearing the same from other growers.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has had a mighty tough year,” said Rutland. “We just never could set a crop. The soils were saturated, and the melons just didn’t get big enough. In some fields, we didn’t gather anything.”
Rutland, who planted 60 acres of melons this year, has not had a chance to tally his losses, but said he knows the figures will not be good.
“I can’t give you a figure because I just got through cleaning up my fields yesterday,” he said on July 16. “It’s just been an unusual year.”
Excessive rains can also increase disease because growers cannot maintain a regular scouting and fungicide application schedule.
“The vines have just melted down,” Steede said. “Nobody has been able to get in the fields to spray.”