Watermelons ripen into juicy fruit

Harvest starts for local growers

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Patrick Owens is a quality control kind of guy when it comes to his watermelons.

While workers took a break from gathering seeded and seedless watermelons on a 40-acre field Tuesday, Owens pulled out a large Buck knife and split one of the melons in half.

The 26-year-old farmer cut a big chunk out of the bright red fruit and plopped it into his mouth.

“I like to eat the heart out,” Owens said. “I eat so many of them I just eat right there in the center.”

“You only want to carry one to a customer that’s just right,” said Owens, a 2012 Beddingfield High School graduate. “At the end of the day when they cut it open, they are going to know if it’s not right. You want to leave a smile on their face.”

Owens, who earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture business management from North Carolina State University in 2018, is growing watermelons for the sixth year.

“I started growing watermelons along with a lot of other crops, and at the end of the year the watermelons paid all the bills and everything else lost money, so I decided to continue that, and it just kind of steadily grew and built up a customer base,” Owens said. “I have always just tried to do a good job.”

Owens said a watermelon’s exterior has to be aesthetically appealing.

“You have got to sell the outside of the watermelon,” Owens said. “When you cut into it, it’s got to be red, firm flesh, no interior problems like hollow heart, and you don’t want a lot of black seeds in there.”

Watermelon production is expensive.

“You’ve got a lot of input costs before you ever put a seed in the ground,” Owens said.

In order to have a break-even year, Owens needs to produce 40,000 pounds of fruit per acre, or about 2 ½ million pounds of fruit through the course of a season.

“With the heat that we have had this year, North Carolina is ahead of schedule just like every other state,” Owens said. “If they want local produce, they can start looking now because it is starting to arrive.”

“I think next week we will start to ease into it a little more heavy, and then the following week, post-July 4, we will be wide open in full swing,” Owens said.

James Sharp of FreshPik, chairman of the board for the North Carolina Watermelon Association, said he’s growing about 300 acres of watermelons this year.

“We started off planting a little bit later due to the heavy rains that came early April, but with the hot, dry weather we have had since then, it has sped the crop up,” Sharp said. “We’re just looking forward to a good upcoming season.”

The peak of production will be in early July.

That’s just in time for the Deans Farm Market Watermelon Festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 13.

“We’ll have some good local watermelons for it,” Sharp said. “There are several growers in Wilson that grow watermelons, and they have a big economic impact to our community.

“I want to emphasize how much other people have helped me along,” Owens said of other watermelon growers in Wilson County who have helped him with laborers, pallets, boxes, stickers and even melons.

That includes growers like Richard Brantley, Mike Mumford, Richard Brantley, Rob Glover and Sharp.

“They are always helping with advice on general farming practices,” Owens said. “We share ideas and bounce things off each other to see what works best for each farm.”