Summer sweetness: Festival celebrates watermelon crop

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James Sharp knows that Wilson County dirt grows a good watermelon.

Sharp, of Fresh Pik Produce, has more farmland tied up in watermelons than any other crop this year.

That’s a good thing because he’ll be supplying the fruit for the Watermelon Festival at Deans Farm Market on Saturday. The event is 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Free slices of watermelon will be given away while supplies last.

North Carolina Watermelon Queen Emma Cannon will be there for pictures or for discussion. Wilson Tobs players and team mascot Slugger will be on hand smashing melons Gallagher-style. Kids will be able to paint a melon, and there will be a seed-spitting contest as well.

“We’re going to let the kids hit a watermelon, so we’re going to have some fun games for the family,” Sharp said.

Sharp was elected president of the North Carolina Watermelon Association in February.

“It’s an organization that raises money for research about watermelons as well as marketing funds to help promote North Carolina watermelons,” Sharp said. “I have been on the board of directors for about five years now, and this is my first time as president.”

Sharp grows a little more than 250 acres of watermelons.

“All of ours are mini seedless watermelons, also known as personal watermelons. It’s a specialty melon,” Sharp said. “The size of them makes it really easy to cut and put right into our refrigerator.”

The melons typically weigh from 6 to 8 pounds.

“Our soil types do really well growing these watermelons,” Sharp said.

Wilson County has sandy loam soil, as does eastern North Carolina in general, that drains well.

“We grow our watermelons on black plastic with drip irrigation, so we can control whatever fertilizers they need as well as do a few things in production to keep the sugar content really high in the watermelon,” Sharp said. “There’s a lot of good things about watermelon. It’s sweet and refreshing. It’s healthy. It quickly helps hydrate.”

Sharp has been growing these mini watermelons for about 12 years now.

Producing watermelons is labor-intensive.

“Everything is hand-planted and hand-harvested, so there is a lot of labor involved in these produce crops,” Sharp said.

On Thursday, Sharp walked along in a field as melons were cut off the vine, rolled into a conveyor and gathered in large bins.

A third of a tractor-trailer worth of watermelons was picked in just a half hour.

A “harvest aid” made by a company in Spring Hope has made harvesting the melons much more efficient.

“Of course it’s still a lot of hand labor, but earlier we used to have to pitch those melons, so you’d cut ’em and have to pitch ’em up to the trailer, and that really wears a person down, so this really takes a lot of that workload away as well as having an inspector there to inspect the melons as they are coming across to check that everything’s good,” Sharp said. “It eliminates a lot of bruising and internal issues from tossing the melons.”

The melons, slightly smaller than a soccer ball, are almost perfectly round.

“They pack easier. They are easier to handle,” Sharp said. “It makes a big difference.”

Fresh Pik Produce will ship the melons from Florida up the East Coast into Canada and usually no farther than the Midwest to different chain stores, Sharp said.

“It’s the No. 1 crop that we grow as far as acres,” Sharp said.

Weather this year has been great for growing watermelons.

“We had some rain back in the spring of the year, but now we’re at harvest time,” Sharp said. “It’s hot and dry, and that’s really good conditions for a good-quality watermelon.”

Around 3,000 acres of watermelons are grown in the state.

“The same soil types that grow good sweet potatoes and tobacco, that sandy loam soil, does really well with watermelons,” Sharp said. “It really allows the plants to stress and have good sugar content and make a good, sweet watermelon.”

For information on Saturday’s festival, call Deans Farm Market at 252-237-0967. The market is at 4231 N.C. 42 on the west side of Wilson.

dwilson@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818