By GEORGE PLAVEN
EO Media Group
With summer heating up, Hermiston's most famous fruit is back in season.
Crews at Bellinger Farms began picking watermelons last week, and the harvest is expected to run into early October. Demand usually peaks around Labor Day as people gather outside for picnics and family reunions, said owner Jack Bellinger.
The recent weather also has Bellinger excited for this year's crop. Hot days and cool nights are essential to increasing the sugar content of Hermiston watermelons, giving them their distinctive sweetness.
That reputation is a point of pride in the community. The watermelon is a symbol of the city, adorning the water tower and Chamber of Commerce logo.
Hermiston watermelons even have more than 3,500 "likes" on Facebook.
"You think of watermelons, and you think of good times. It's a fun fruit," Bellinger said. "What a great thing to grow in the desert."
Despite their local appeal, watermelons are grown in less than 800 total acres of area farms. By comparison, northern Umatilla and Morrow counties grow 30,000 acres each of potatoes and corn.
The watermelon is more of a boutique crop here, Bellinger said. Of his farm's 750 acres, 300 are set aside for watermelons, cantaloupe and a few other vegetables.
The average yield is typically 35 tons per acre, which he hopes to reach this year.
Other than a May frost that killed two acres and several 100-plus degree days -- considered too hot -- Bellinger said the weather leading up to harvest has been good for watermelons.
"We like what we see so far," he said. "It's a unique microclimate in this area that allows us to produce superior fruit."
Skip Walchli, of Walchli Farms, said his harvest should pick up early next week. He expects a better yield than the last two years, when colder weather in June slowed both growth and sales.
"It takes hot weather to sell watermelons," Walchli said. "In general, the watermelons as of right now are in good quality."
Walchli and Bellinger are among a handful of major Hermiston growers who work with Botsford & Goodfellow, based in Clackamas, to sell their product in stores across the Northwest, including the Portland and Seattle areas.
Former broker Denny McNamee spent 25 years in the business before retiring, though he still keeps an eye on the company. Watermelon prices are currently a healthy 26 cents per pound in Hermiston, though it's still early in the season.
McNamee was worried the string of scorching hot days earlier this month would put too much stress on the melons, but they appear to be doing fine, he said.
"Quality definitely wasn't hurt. Yield has yet to be seen," McNamee said. "My first guess is it won't. But we'll see."
Nationally, the leading producers of watermelon in 2012 were Florida and Georgia, followed by California and Texas, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. But Hermiston has a definite niche, McNamee said, kept alive by several generations of farmers.
"These families have farmed watermelon and passed it down from father to son," he said. "These growers probably have forgotten more than you and I will ever know. They're all great people."
At Bellinger, the harvest is a labor-intensive process. Workers use knives to cut the melons off their vine, and eight-man pitching crews follow loading the fruit onto the back of a truck.
From there, it is brought back to the main facility for weighing, sorting and packaging. Bellinger will have 75-80 workers at the height of the operation, and he said he is "blessed with one of the best crews in the area."
Everyone understands the urgency of getting the melons to market, he said. They are hopeful to have a good supply in stock in time for the Labor Day rush.
"I'm very much looking forward to it," Bellinger said. "I think the quality will be great, and that's a huge part of it."