Henry Harrison, Merrill, Thomas A., Morgan, Johnny W. | 6/30/2006 2:37:13 AM
In Washington Parish, you generally don’t need a calendar to tell when July 4 is near. All you’d have to do is drive around and count the number of people selling watermelons on the roadside or at produce stands.
The same is true in many other areas across Louisiana where watermelons are grown and sold this time of year.
Experts say even this year’s drought hasn’t dampened that spirit or dramatically altered the quality of the crop.
"Despite the lack of rain during most of the growing season, we still have a pretty good-looking crop of melons," said LSU AgCenter county agent Henry Harrison, who works in Washington Parish – where the largest number of the state’s watermelon growers are located.
Watermelons actually are grown in 28 parishes across Louisiana and contributed nearly $5.6 million to Louisiana’s economy during the 2005 growing season. Bienville Parish growers led the state in posting an overall production valued at $1.4million, although Washington Parish still has the most growers with a total of 80.
Harrison, like LSU AgCenter county agents and specialists across the state, is charged with helping producers in his area grow a high quality, more abundant crop.
He said there a number of factors involved in producing what Washington Parish growers boast to be the best tasting watermelons anywhere. And you would be hard-pressed to find any two growers who use exactly the same growing techniques, Harrison said.
Two of the farmers Harrison works closely with are Washington Parish watermelon growers T.C. Arthur and his son Thomas Arthur. Harrison says this father-and-son team ranks among the best growers in the parish and maybe the state.
"Mr. T.C., who is in his 70s, and his son are growing about 30 acres of watermelons, and they do all of the work themselves," Harrison said.
Thomas Arthur, who helps his father in the operation on a part-time basis, says he advertises his father’s melons as the best in the entire parish.
"I’d tell anybody that his growing methods create the best-tasting watermelons anywhere. Even when I was a kid, my friends and I would tell people that my dad had the best-tasting watermelons in the parish," Thomas Arthur said.
The elder Arthur says he has been in the business of raising watermelons for the past 25 years, and now it’s the only work that he does.
"I started out just growing a few melons, and it just grew into the size that it is today," T.C. Arthur said.
He explained that he doesn’t have any problem moving the product.
"We’ve been in the business long enough that people just know I raise a good-tasting watermelon," T.C. Arthur said. "My problem is not having enough supply for the demand."
The Arthurs said they sell their melons according to their own "30 pound rule." If melons weigh 30 pounds or more, then they sell for $4-$5 each.
Harrison said the reason the Arthurs’ melons are always of the highest quality is attributed to the experience of the grower. Although there are many ways to grow watermelons – on plastic or on the ground, with irrigation or without irrigation, just to name a couple of variations – it’s the way growers use their experience to manipulate those variables that makes a difference, according to Harrison and the Arthurs.
Thomas Arthur said he’s been keeping notes on how to produce watermelons like his dad has done.
"I don’t just have it in memory, so I have actually written down all of the amounts and times that certain things have to happen in order to have the same great-tasting watermelons that dad has raised all these years," he said.
When asked if he plans to continue raising melons when his father gives it up, Thomas Arthur said he plans to raise them as long as he can. He also said he’s trying to get his 9-year-old son interested in the enterprise. But so far, the youngest of the Arthurs only wants to charge a fee for counting the watermelons when they bring them out of the field, according to his dad.
The majority of Louisiana’s watermelons are produced in four parishes – although 28 parishes reported some production in 2005, according to the LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The four leading watermelon growing parishes in the state and their 2005 crop values are:
–Bienville, with 700 acres planted and a total gross farm value of $1.4 million. –Union, with 700 acres planted and a total gross farm value of $1.3 million.
–Avoyelles, with 350 acres planted and a total gross farm value of $1.05 million.
–Washington, with 725 acres planted and a total gross farm value of $928,000. Other parishes where watermelons were produced last year, in order of the gross farm value posted in each, were Vernon, Beauregard, Webster, Claiborne, Richland, Grant, Rapides, Caddo, Tangipahoa, Lincoln, St. Helena, Ouachita, Red River, Winn, Sabine, St. Charles, St. Tammany, St. Landry, West Carroll, Livingston, Catahoula, Pointe Coupee, St. James and Franklin.
For additional information on watermelon production in the state, contact your parish’s office of the LSU AgCenter or visit www.lsuagcenter.com.