(UPDATED March 3) NEW ORLEANS — Bob Morrissey, executive director of the National Watermelon Association, doesn’t consider the group’s annual get-together to be a convention.

It has all the hallmarks of a convention, with workshop sessions, meetings, receptions and an exposition floor. It also has something else, Morrissey says: a sense of family.

“Our convention is very, very similar to a family reunion of a very large extended family,” Morrissey said of the Feb. 24-28 event. “They embrace each other, break bread together and we’ll talk together and we pray together before every major event, and we have five of them.”

Morrissey said the group likes to have fun as well, and this year’s event featured a reception at Mardi Gras World, where regional watermelon queens threw beads from floats and remnants of past parade floats provided the background. Next year’s show is scheduled for Tahoe, Calif.

But there’s a serious side to the convention.

“We also conduct some pretty significant business as well and we’ve added in the last three years a major educational component,” Morrissey said Feb. 27 after a food safety seminar featuring representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, the United Fresh Produce Association and Primus AuditingOps, a third-party certifier.

“We’ve had more education (sessions) in the last three days than we’ve collectively had in the last five years, and (members) really embraced it, really turned out,” he said.

The sessions, dubbed Impact Hours, included a presentation on labor laws by attorneys with Fisher & Phillips LLP (Steven Cupp and Ann Margaret Pointer), which has offices throughout the country. Like the food safety session, the labor presentation was heavy on questions from the audience.

The watermelon growers aired concerns over unannounced visits from federal agencies including the Department of Labor, forcing a shutdown in production during peak packing periods. They looked to the attorneys for answers on how to meet with regulators without shutting production down, and what rights they have in those situations. Other concerns included some regulators’ failure to recognize growers exempt from overtime pay as part of an agricultural operation.

“It is very important that the industry knows what the rules and laws are and how things work,” said Nowell Borders, president of Borders Melon Co., Edinburg, Texas. “It’s also very important that we understand what rights we have. And it’s not just for the Department of Labor, it’s also with Rural Legal Aid. They bring suits against us many, many times that are completely and totally based on false information. ... I think it makes a lot of difference that we at least know what’s going on.”

Morrissey said the National Watermelon Association is the oldest commodity association in the country, at 102 years old.

Steve Maxwell, CEO and founder of Highland Precision Ag, Plant City, Fla., gave an overview of how his company uses technology to foresee problems in fields before it’s too late to head off disease and pest damage, and other problems that cost growers money.

Using drones loaded with six cameras to scan fields on the near-infrared light spectrum, Highland Precision Ag can detect problems by analyzing the different colors on the footage. The company is testing the system on Florida strawberry fields this season, and the results are promising, Maxwell said. Recently, a strawberry grower’s field “scout” was skeptical until Maxwell compared his assessment of that of the scouts written notes. They matched.

Maxwell calls the process “C.S.I. meets Green Acres.”

“We’re manipulating the data in such a way that we can come back to the farm and speak all this techie stuff in farmer language, the end result being you can make good, accurate and timely decisions,” he said. “ ... They’re able to see problems in ways they’ve never seen before.

The company plans to open a lab in California in the first quarter of 2017, and at some point Maxwell wants to promote the program directly consumers. The selling point: using technology, growers can see where fields might need less fertilizer/pesticides and cut down on chemical use. For now, the company is working on a certification and label for Florida strawberry growers that includes a quick-response code directing consumers to a video on the process.

At the association’s annual awards banquet, Georgia watermelon queen Carla Penny was crowned as the 2016 national queen. Penny, a 23-year-old American history major with a minor in communication studies, attends the University of Georgia. She’ll appear at different events throughout the country in the coming year, including grocery store promotions, interviews with media and appearances on cooking shows and TV news segments.

First runner-up was Carmen Honeycutt, the North Carolina queen, and second runner-up was Lenze Tyme Morris, the Alabama queen. The Mar-Del queen, Courtney Hastings, was named Miss Jubilee.

The 28-member of inaugural class of the NWA’s Hall of Fame was recognized during the banquet, with family members representing deceased members, appearing on stage.

Several companies were recognized for donations to the NWA through partnership programs:

  • CHEP, which donated almost $35,000, through a program that began in 2007. Donations, which top $120,000 since the program began, are based on the number of pallets NWA members purchase.
  • Sakata Seed America Inc., for $6,500, through a program tying donations to seeds purchased; and
  • Allen Lund Co., which donated $10,000.