Summer memories grow on the vine in Dalhart

Whether it’s Fourth of July family picnics, road trips or just afternoons by the swimming pool, if summertime had a flavor, it might just taste like a slice of sweet, juicy watermelon.

Americans love watermelons for their summer gatherings. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that U.S. annual per capita consumption of watermelon, at a little over 16 pounds per person, has been on the rise over the last 20 years. And growers, like 3B Farms, near Dalhart, Texas, are meeting that demand.

Mark Bezner raises watermelon as part of his family’s diversified farm in the northern Texas Panhandle. Besides Mark and his wife Jenny, there are parents Lanny and Rita Bezner, brother Brian and his wife Alicia Bezner, sister Virgina and her husband Frank Arguello, and brother John and his wife Pam Bezner. This larger family operation primarily raises seed wheat, corn and cattle, but about five years ago, the family decided to test the watermelon waters with their first crop.

“So, my brother Brian was on a hunting trip and he ran into some guys from around down near College Station who grow watermelons and they joked that maybe we should try them up here,” Mark explained. “A couple of weeks later, we got closer to the watermelon growing season and we started looking at the agricultural commodity cash flows and corn just wasn’t the best, there wasn’t a real good market at that time.” That led to a phone call to Wiggins Watermelons in Caldwell, Texas—those guys from the hunting trip—who contract with growers in five Texas locations to sell watermelons throughout the growing season.

“We were just looking for something to try outside of corn and wheat that was as profitable or more as corn,” Mark explained. And now, they plant about 350 to 400 acres of watermelon under irrigation every year.

A good start

The Bezners plant their watermelon starts in May up to the beginning of June to meet the Labor Day watermelon demand.

“We grow two Syngenta varieties, Exclamation and Fascination,” Mark said. “We found they grow decent in our climate and they put on a blockier round fruit that the packer likes because they fit in the bins nicely. They have a dark green color that just looks nice in the bins.”

They transplant watermelon plants, rather than planting seed, because the plants will grow quicker. And, to give those little transplanted watermelon plants a windbreak, the Bezners plant a wheat cover crop the fall before watermelons go into the field.

“Those little plants we transplant are pretty fragile to wind, and our Texas winds can be pretty brutal on them,” Mark explained. “So, we go in on 10-foot centers and decide how many plants per acre and from that we look at how many square feet is available to that plant. That’s important to melons because that’s what predicts the size of the melon.” The Bezners shoot for 23 to 24 square feet per watermelon plant to grow a 15-pound watermelon that the market desires.

“We do a lot of strip-tilling in corn, and that’s where the idea started,” he said. In order for the transplanter equipment to work precisely, that bed needs to be as consistent as possible, without clods and rootballs that can get in the way of the transplanted starts.

The wheat windbreaks also serve as shade for the watermelon and help suppress weeds until the transplants can grow and shade the ground themselves. There are very few herbicides that can be used on watermelons, so they rely on pre-plant herbicides and a hoe crew to go out and pull weeds during the summer, as well.

Watermelons take a hefty amount of fertilizer, and Mark said they will pump fertilizer through their pivot water applications, particularly nitrogen and calcium. But there are also weekly foliar applications through a spray rig.

“We typically try to keep melons out of a field for four years, the thought being that you could build up bacteria that could be detrimental to your crop if you plant melons two or three years in a row,” Mark said. And, while they tried rotating watermelons behind corn, they found greater success with them in behind wheat.

Of course, watermelons are 92 percent water so properly timing irrigation is critical to the development of the juiciest watermelon eating experience. Mark runs the center pivots before planting to build up a water profile for the transplants to access.

“Right after transplanting they need a good steady supply of water, so once a day we give them a drink,” he said. “Until that root grows and reaches out farther into the soil and they can search for water themselves.” Once those plants have established themselves, they don’t need a whole lot more water applied until it’s time for them to set fruit, which is about the second week of July.

Picking the best

Contract growing for Wiggins Watermelons has added benefits to the Bezner family. Wiggins supplies the planting and harvest crews.

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“We start harvesting usually around Aug. 20 and we’ll continue until the first part of October,” Mark said. The Wiggins crews will stay through the growing season and walk fields three to four times and select and load the ripe melons, leaving the unripened ones on the vines to mature. They will cull melons in the field and haul the picked ones to a packing shed that the Bezners set up on their farm.

There’s another crew that culls through the melons again at that stage in order for every melon to make it into the box that gets shipped to the store to be the best melon possible for the customer. Wiggins Watermelons also has an in-house food safety coordinator who comes and inspects each facility for safety and quality, Mark said.

“The Wigginses are really good people to work with, and they keep their standards high because the customers know that if they’re buying from them that they are excellent quality,” Mark said. As the northern location for the Wiggins wholesale operation, the Bezners raise the melons that hit the market later in the season. Mark said their melons wind up in Walmart, H-E-B, Sam’s Club and ALDIs, and ship all over the United States as well as into Canada.

“If it’s late September, and you’re eating a Wiggins Watermelon, it’s a good chance it’s ours,” he said.

So, what makes a good watermelon?

“The old wives’ tale is to thump it and hear a sound, but you should forget that,” Mark said. “Look at the underside of the melon, where it laid on the ground. The deeper the yellow there, the sweeter it will be. And the more contrast between the ladder, or the stripes, usually tells you it’s a better tasting watermelon.” Thumping just tells you it’s hollow, he said.

“The best watermelon to me is one that I pick when I’m out in the field checking the crop closer to harvest,” Mark said. And, knowing that the melons his family grows on their Dalhart farm will be part of someone’s summertime memories across the country is pretty sweet indeed.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].