Jonathan Mein (from left) of Seminis, Courtney Davis of Speedling Inc., Marshal Sewell of Seminis, David Shupert of Seminis, Rachel Syngo of Melon1, and Glen Syngo of Melon1 just before the National Watermelon Association’s annual awards banquet Feb. 23 at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort. ( Chris Koger )

WAIKOLOA, Hawaii —The watermelon industry gave the National Watermelon Association a big “mahalo” (thank you) to the group for its first conference off the mainland in its 105-year history.

Executive Director Bob Morrissey said the decision to schedule the convention in Hawaii was a risk, but there’s no doubt the membership and allied companies who support the event agreed it was the right choice.

The location for each NWA conference is locked down years in advance, and relies on the support of growers and other industry members in the Eastern U.S. Despite last year’s tough market that saw an oversupply of watermelons, attendance for the Hawaii event was the third-largest of any NWA convention west of Texas, with more than 390 attendees, Morrissey said.

“With the negative impacts of the watermelon season last year across the country, especially in the east, because of weather and the supply and a number of other things had an impact on people, there were some friends that couldn’t make the trip,” he said. “But all and all, our attendance has been overwhelming, much more than expected.”

Morrissey said the NWA’s executive committee will discuss the possibility of returning.

“Obviously, the association has never been this far from home and we were concerned whether or not people would come,” said Jim Schmidt, managing member of SunTerra Produce. “I think everyone that came out here had a great time and they were thankful they came.”

Luke Brown, of west Texas’ Luke Brown Farms, said he had an excellent time.

“It was a bold idea,” Brown said. “They pulled it off. I could see it coming back here in the long-term future.”

An unconventional line-up

The conference’s two keynote speakers don’t have a background in the industry, but Morrissey said they were chosen specifically for their inspiring messages.

Major Ed Pulido (Ret.) is the senior vice president of the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides scholarships to spouses and children of service members killed or wounded in action. “Major Ed,” as he quickly became known at the conference, lost his leg while fighting in Iraq in 2004, and has since become a charismatic advocate the fallen and wounded. He also founded Warriors for Freedom Foundation, which focuses on the mental and physical support of wounded veterans and their families.

After Pulido’s speech, companies in the industry pledged $45,000 to Folds of Honor, enough to fund nine scholarships, and Morrissey said he plans to see if the industry will support an annual donation program to Folds of Honor.

“They brought me to tears yesterday when they came up to me at the beginning of the auction and said there are 23 companies that stepped up,” Morrissey said Feb. 23. “That was really inspiring. It’s awesome.”

Jessica McCabe, whose YouTube channel “How to ADHD” grew out of her inability to find specific tips for adults living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, spoke on Feb. 23. She created a toolbox of tips to help others like her learn that medication is only part of the treating ADHD. She performed “Try Different,” a song about realizing that if you aren’t good at something, it doesn’t mean you’re not good at anything.

“We did something different here,” Morrissey said. “We typically will bring in speakers or presenters that have something to do with the industry or politics or food safety, something like that. But in Hawaii we wanted to do something different.”

The annual auction raised $451,000 from contributions and donated items, including loads of watermelons and watermelon-themed clothing and household items.

A number of companies and individuals were recognized at the Feb. 23 awards banquet, including:

  • Watermelon Hall of Fame inductees Charlie Lankford and Art Perry — Lankford was instrumental in helping pioneer seedless watermelons through his work with American Sun Melon in the 1980s. He has served on the NWA executive committee and is a member of its Lifetime Council. Art Perry, whose family grows watermelons and pumpkins and other produce at Manteca, Calif.-based Perry & Sons, was one of the founders of the California-Arizona Watermelon Association, now called the Western Watermelon Association;
  • Roche Bros. — recipient of the NWA’s marketing award; and
  • Jim Mastropietro — NWA executive committee member and bulk manager for International Paper, is retiring in a month.