August 29, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence
LEXINGTON, KY.

Melons like it hot and dry, so this summer is a good one for Kentucky growers. But the normal Kentucky summer of high humidity, heavy dews and consistent rainfall can give growers headaches when they are trying to bring melons to maturity. For the past five years, a University of Kentucky horticulture professor has been looking for the right melons to help alleviate growers’ pain.

John Strang has tested more than 100 different varieties of specialty melons. This year’s crop at the College of Agriculture’s Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington consisted of 31 varieties. Strang is not breeding the melons, but testing existing varieties for qualities that make them appealing to both farmers and consumers.

“There’s nothing worse than buying a nice melon and getting home and finding it doesn’t taste very good; it has low sugar content or is starting to break down,” he said. “So what we need to do is provide the consumer with something that really tastes good, looks good and has some shelf life,” he said. “We have some that look as if they have some real possibilities.”

Melons do the best in dry areas, which is why most successful melon production in the winter and spring takes place in the southwestern part of the country. Dry conditions increase the fruit’s sugar content. That’s why this year’s drought has produced some varieties with a 16 or 17 percent sugar content. 

The reverse side of the coin is finding melon varieties that farmers can grow successfully every year despite weather conditions. Kentucky is rife with pest and disease problems that can make or break a crop. Between cucumber beetles that spread bacterial wilt, spider mites and fungal diseases, growers have much to worry about during the typical moist Kentucky growing season. Strang suggests farmers interested in producing a specialty melon crop start with the basics -- either watermelon or cantaloupe. They are a bit easier to grow than specialty melons, such as the canary, honeydew, Crenshaw, casaba, Piel de Sapo, Galia, Asian and gourmet melons. 

“These melons are not for the new grower or the backyard gardener,” he said. “There’s a lot of spraying involved. If you plant the seed and don’t do anything until harvest except water them and take care of the weeds, you won’t be picking any melons.”

Many of the specialty melons are susceptible to anthracnose disease, a fungal disease that infects leaves and results in defoliation of the plant. Without leaves, there will be no sugar production. Bacterial wilt, carried in the stomachs of cucumber beetles that inoculate the vines with the bacteria, plugs up the conductive system of the plant, causing rapid, total collapse. Growers have to stay on top of their spraying. Strang said one pesticide can’t control all the problems, so farmers need to be familiar with the problems and choose appropriate spray material for control.

With all that worry and work, why would a farmer attempt raising such a crop? According to Strang, they will be able to demand a good price for a premium product. The rise in roadside and farmers’ markets, as well as the reduction in tobacco acreage, have spurred the small farmer to look at vegetables and fruit as a higher dollar value crop suitable for small acreage. And in the metropolitan areas, growers are looking for niche markets, so the specialty melons have potential for attracting consumers.

Strang said he has run into a few melons that show real possibility. ‘Sprite’ is a small Asian melon with a white, thin waxy rind and creamy white flesh. It has a high sugar content that should please most consumers and seems to grow well in both dry and wetter conditions. The ‘Napoli’ melon looks like a small cantaloupe with very sweet green flesh. ‘Honey Yellow’ is a small, bright yellow honeydew with a cream colored flesh. Strang said there is considerable variation in the type of melons individuals like, and he is looking for melons widely accepted by consumers. 

Growers interested in growing specialty melons can learn more from the UK Department of Horticulture’s fruit and vegetable research report, which will be released in January. Copies of the report will be available through the local Cooperative Extension office or on the Web, http://www.uky.edu/Ag/Horticulture/strategic.html.

Information can also be gleaned by attending the Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference in January at the Embassy Suites in Lexington. Look for conference information in Horticulture’s Fruit Facts Newsletter or through the local extension office.

Contact: 

John Strang, 859-257-5685