Despite small setbacks from winter freezes and April rain in Georgia, watermelon growers and packers said they expect the Florida deal to start in late April and smoothly transition to Georgia production after Memorial Day.

Brian Arrigo, president of Southern Corporate Packers Inc., Immokalee, Fla., said he planned to start harvesting April 18 in the earliest watermelon producing state.

“We are ready to get fired up and the crop looks really good,” he said April 14. “The quality is really good. Everything made it through the freezes well.”

January and February freezing temperatures delayed south Florida plantings, and cold weather that struck northern Florida growing regions April 9 burnt the tops off a few of the plants and leaves. Otherwise, Arrigo said he didn’t expect much production loss.  Last season, temperatures fell to 29 degrees and the plants still produced 60,000 pounds to the acre, so Arrigo said spring volume should come along well.

Volume to hit in early May

Arrigo said he expects promotable volume in early May. Southern Corporate Packers plans to start its Georgia pickings in the Milan, Ga., area on-time in mid-June after its Ocala, Fla.-area production winds down.

Southern Corporate Packers grows watermelon in the Immokalee and Devil’s Garden area, in Wauchula, Fla., for central Florida and in Trenton, near Ocala, for its later season northern Florida deal.

Lloyd Rosen, marketing director for William Manis Co. Produce Marketing, Plant City, Fla., expects to start watermelon packing watermelon April 27 from the Clewiston, Fla./Lake Okeechobee growing region. Volume should run through late May before Manis switches to its northern Florida panhandle production in Marianna, Fla. That volume should run through the Fourth of July when Manis switches to Missouri production.

Rosen characterized the southern Florida growing season as slow. He said the plants didn’t get enough nights of temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s and days of 70s and 80s temperatures. Despite the temperature shortfall, Rosen said quality appears excellent and that there is a lot of time for plant growth leading into late April.

Rosen said he’s concerned about possible mismatch of melon sizings and demand. While the plants usually produce the larger 45-count sized watermelon, Rosen said during a tougher economy consumers spend less money and retailers want smaller 60-count sized melons to create lower price points.

Size issue

“We will have mostly 45s into a market that seems to want 60s,” Rosen said in mid-April. “If you go with 45s, we will have plenty of supply, but the price point could be too high for consumers. If you go with 60s, we will have price but not the volume of supply they need. That’s our dilemma for this season. It will be interesting to see how much flexibility is exercised to move the crop based on what Mother Nature produces.”

Rosen quoted 28-32 cents per-pound for imported melons in mid-April. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if the market dropped to 25 cents a pound when Florida volume begins in earnest. To move any kind of volume these days, Rosen said the market needs to be in the range of 19-22 cents on the early pickings.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on April 14 reported these prices for Mexican watermelon: 20 cents per pound for 24-inch bins of 45-55-count red-flesh seedless and 18-20 cents per pound for 60-count for Nogales, Ariz., crossings. For Texas crossings, cartons of red flesh seedless type 4-6s per pound were quoted at 28-30 cents; 24-inch bins per pound red flesh seedless 35-45 count sold for 26-28 cents.

Higher prices

Last year in late April, the USDA reported 16-18 cents per pound for 24-inch bins of 45-count red-flesh seedless watermelons from Mexico.

The USDA reported Florida shipments were expected to begin April 24 with sufficient volume for first f.o.b. report by the end of April, while Texas pickings were expected to start during the same time frame in light volume with promotable volume hitting in mid-May. Texas’ early quality was expected to be variable due to wind scarring, the USDA reported.

Greg Leger, president and partner in Leger & Son Inc., Cordele, Ga., called this winter’s pricing aggressive. He said prices escalated in early March but soon settled down.  Leger, who also sells south Florida production, quoted 26-28 cents per pound.

He said he expected his Florida production to begin on-time April 27 with decent volume.

Leger said he visited his Immokalee and Arcadia, Fla. growers’ fields April 13 and said he saw some freeze damage in low-lying areas. Leger said the deal could be faced with a 25% yield loss. When harvest starts, Leger said pickers will have to revisit areas of fields where growers had to replant.

“There was pretty good quality in the couple hundred acres I looked at,” Leger said April 14. “The vines look good. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of disease issues.”

Leger plans to begin the Cordele harvest June 10. Georgia volume normally runs through after the Fourth of July.

Leger’s northern Florida deal, near Ocala, is expected to fill the May 30-June 10 gap between south Florida and Georgia production.

Southeastern watermelon growers dodge cold and rain
Southern Corporate Packers Inc., Immokalee, Fla., will start harvesting April 18, says Brian Arrigo, president.