(May 4) As watermelon packers start shipping for the Memorial Day holiday, weather problems and disease pressures could limit Southeastern melon supplies and increase prices.
Production in some areas of south Florida has been delayed by as much as a week, shippers say.
“It’s a roller coaster. It’s different than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Greg Leger, a partner in Leger & Son Inc., Cordele, Ga., speaking of Florida production. “We just do not have the fruit set on this acreage down there.”
High winds blew through the Immokalee, Fla., and Clewiston, Fla., areas during March and April. A lack of pollination also hurt fruit production.
Yields in the Immokalee and Clewiston areas will be down by a third, Leger said. Production, he said, has been delayed by 10 days.
“The wind blew constantly during the growing season,” he said. “It’s a very hard and difficult season.”
Southern and central Florida could see a 30% to 40% crop loss, said Chandler Mack, vice president of operations for Mack Farms Inc., Lake Wales, Fla.
The high winds left a lot of damage to the crop and brought significant bloom loss, he said.
Shippers report higher prices out of Florida for early May.
Seedless fruit was selling for 22-25 cents per pound bulk; seeded, 18-19 cents a pound. Last year, it was 17 cents per pound through the Memorial Day holiday for seedless with 14 cents for seeded, shippers say.
Clyde Ware, president of C&C Enterprises of Alabama Inc., Arcadia, Fla., said quality on early shipments looks poor.
“On the melons coming out now, in general, we probably have 40% good melons,” he said. “The rest were either wind scarred real bad or have a hollow heart.”
Quality, however, he said, will improve as cutting continues to move north from Immokalee and Clewiston to Lakeland, Wildwood, Fla., and Trenton, Fla., before moving into Georgia by early June.
Shippers report seeing more incidences of a new strain of gummy stem disease hitting their melons. The illness prevents fruit from maturing by not letting melon vines die.
The Florida Watermelon Association Inc., Immokalee, has given the University of Florida’s Immokalee research center to $15,000 to determine the nature of the disease that researchers are calling mature watermelon decline disease.
“It’s a little more prevalent now,” said Patty Swilley, the association’s secretary-treasurer. “It’s showing in either new fields that have never been farmed before or old fields. They’re kind of stumped as to what the cause is.”
Mack said growers are seeing a lot of the disease.
“The vines wilt, and it causes scarring and white lesions inside the melon,” he said. “It’s present in some of the fields down south. It has even made some of the melons not even marketable in some of the fields.”
The South Carolina crop hasn’t seen much disease pressure, said Bradley O’Neal, owner of Coosaw Farms, Fairfax, S.C.
“The fruit is starting to set a little earlier this season,” he said. “We have larger fruit than we normally do this time of the year.”
South Carolina production, which normally starts the first week of June, is expected to begin a week early, O’Neal, who also ships out of Florida, said.
“The biggest problem is we don’t have a big supply of melons now,” he said.
Demand is starting to increase, he said. O’Neal said he thinks South Carolina will have adequate supplies for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
Last year, heavy rains sacked his production area. O’Neal characterized this year’s growing season as fairly tranquil.