Watermelons boost to college fund

At the end of August, Hunter Miller will enter Mississippi College, the first step on a long road he hopes will lead to his one day becoming a surgeon.

But right now the 18-year-old is putting in 16-hour days, harvesting thousands of watermelons, the profits from which will go into his college fund.

“If things go well, I'll get done with the melons just in time to get things together and head off to school,” he says with a smile.

This is the third year Hunter, located at Sidon, Miss., has grown watermelons commercially.

“I've never liked to have time on my hands,” he says. “Usually, I spent after-school hours and summers working for my father (Glenn Miller, who has a construction business, a large tree farm operation, and a property management company that has hundreds of apartments and commercial buildings over much of the Delta). A couple of years ago, he suggested I look for something to do on my own that would give me some firsthand business management experience.”

Hunter got the idea for watermelons from family friend and neighbor, Wayne Self, a retired Mississippi game warden, himself a watermelon grower for 25 years until he gave it up for health reasons. “I was the only certified grower in this part of the state for a long time,” Self says.

“Wayne knows watermelons inside and out,” Hunter says. “His advice and assistance have been a great help. I also did a lot of reading of information from Mississippi State University and other sources.”

His research led to the decision that he'd grow hybrid varieties for their higher sugar content, size uniformity, and increased production over conventional varieties.

His first crop, in 2001, consisted of 12 acres — all hand-planted.

“Let's just say that wasn't one of my better decisions,” Hunter laughs. It took about four days for him and some hired labor to get all the seeds in the ground.

“Hybrid seed are very expensive. You can get conventional seed for about $12 a pound; the hybrid I'm using cost $38 for 1,000 seed.”

Things turned out “better than I'd expected,” with yields averaging 1,000-plus melons per acre. “Most vines will set seven or eight melons, but if I average two marketable melons per vine, that's good. These are very uniform, 27 to 28 pounds.”

The rest are left in the field, although some are used as “treats” for several hundred of his father's exotic game: elk, red deer, and axis deer.

“I really had no firm plan for marketing the melons,” Hunter confesses. “Mostly, I just wanted to see what I could do in terms of growing them. But I was fortunate to get connected with a produce wholesaler in Tupelo, Miss., who took all my marketable melons. I sent him five truckloads of 48,000 pounds each.”

Most chain supermarkets buy by the pound, he notes, and “the more pieces they can get per box, the better they like it. They don't want huge melons. A&P, for example, wants mostly 22-pound to 24-pound melons.”

Prices in a good year, he says, will be in the 7- to 8-cents per pound range. Friend Wayne Self recalls years when “they were as low as 3-cents and I couldn't give 'em away.”

All things considered, Hunter says, his initial foray into melons turned out well.

“I was happy with the money I made, but I knew there had to be a better way than planting them by hand.”

After searching around, he took some of his profits and purchased a MaterMacc precision vacuum seeder, which, he says, “has done an excellent job.”

In 2002, he expanded to 50 acres, and “it was one of those seasons when everything just fell into place from a weather, pest, and production standpoint. The fields were super-clean and the melons were great, with an average of 1,200 marketable melons per acre.

“A Bassville, Miss., company brokered the crop for me and lined up trucks. A lot of them went to south Mississippi, where the season was winding down, to New Orleans, and to Florida, where their season was mostly over.”

He also sold through some area stores and made some sales at the packing shed.

This year, Hunter says, has been less than ideal. Heavy spring rains delayed planting and later drowned out six acres, by which time it was too late to replant. The frequent rains also interfered with pollination and bloom set.

“I don't expect production this year will be as good as in 2002, but I think I'll do okay. The quality of the melons is excellent.” In addition to the red melons, he also planted three acres of yellow-meat melons, which, he says, some grocery stores like for display and novelty sales.

Harvesting started the last week in July and he expects it to wind up by the third week of August. He works a crew of 10, chiefly Hispanic workers from the local catfish industry, who have some free time and want to earn extra money. In the field, melons are loaded onto converted cotton trailers and taken to the packing shed for grading, boxing, and loading on trucks for shipping.

“It's 16-hour days, seven days a week, until it's done,” says Hunter's mother, Flo. “There aren't many 18-year-olds who'd want to spend their summer vacations doing that. Hunter's very ambitious and dedicated.”

His crop year starts with soil sampling, with fertilizer recommendations based on Mississippi State University analysis of samples.

“We put fertilizer down and immediately row up the field, with rows 6-feet apart to allow for plowing once the vines are up and growing. We'll usually plow about six times to stimulate roots to go deep into the soil for water.”

He begins putting seed in the ground the last of April, staggering plantings in order to spread the harvest. It takes about 90 days from planting to maturity, given favorable weather.

Bees are necessary for adequate population, so Hunter rents hives from beekeepers at Grenada and Starkville, with about 30,000 bees per five acres.

Fields are checked every other day for cucumber beetles and cutworms, the major pests, and Fury is applied as needed for control.

Other “pests” are not as simple to control. The fields are surrounded by heavily-wooded areas, with high concentrations of deer and other wildlife.

“The deer aren't that much a problem,” Hunter says. “Coyotes are the worst. They can really mess up some melons. But thankfully, losses have been light.”

Asked the age-old question about how to tell when a melon is ripe, Hunter replies: “Some say it's when the first tendril browns, but you get to the point you can walk through the field and tell by sight. We pick them at about 80 percent maturity, which allows them to continue ripening and sweetening until they're sold in the store.”

He's uncertain as to whether he'll continue with melons once he's in college. “I may try to keep it going; it just depends on how demanding my studies are.

“I really like agriculture, but since my family isn't involved in it, it would be hard to get started, with the high costs for land and equipment. I very much enjoy science and biology and have had a deep interest in medicine.

“I spent some time last year with a general surgeon, who allowed me to mosey around the hospital, observing physicians and staff. I liked the operating room, and I think that's the direction I want to go.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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