Personal watermelons can fetch a premium at farmers' markets
By MITCH LIES
CANBY, Ore. -- Once or twice a year Oregon State University horticulture professor George Clough is asked whether it is possible to grow watermelons in the Willamette Valley.
His answer is yes, but a lack of sunshine will limit quality, and growing melons isn't easy, he said.
"It takes a little bit of talent and a little bit of experience," said Clough, who is based in Hermiston. "It's not something you jump into easily."
In addition to managing for fertility needs, wire worm control, pollination needs and other agronomic factors, Clough said farmers looking to grow melons in the valley face natural limitations.
"They'll never get the Hermiston melon here," he said, "but they can get a good melon.
"We have those long, bright summer days and cool nights that build a lot of sugar," he said.
Where brix counts in the 12 percent range are common in Hermiston, growers here will be lucky to reach 10 percent, he said.
Growers in the valley also will be lucky to approach the 40 tons an acre in yields common in the Hermiston area, Clough said.
But valley growers have one advantage: They have a bigger local market.
Interest in growing melons in the Willamette Valley in recent years has coincided with the emergence of the miniature melon as a viable crop and the local food movement.
"If you can get a premium price at a farmers' market, it makes it more economically feasible," Clough said.
The 4- to 5-pound miniature -- also called a personal melon -- is gaining popularity, he said.
"You can hold it in one hand," he said. "Two people can eat it in a sitting, and you don't have this big watermelon sitting in a refrigerator taking up all that space. Plus, it's the latest thing."
Clough knows of two growers producing the personal melon in the Hermiston area. One farmer produced about 40 acres this summer for a broker, and a second grower produced less than 5 acres of the melons to sell at a roadside stand.
Growers producing the melon in the Willamette Valley might want to consider using polypropylene row covers, Clough said. The row covers, which can be used between three and five years, can help increase yields by increasing soil and air temperature and providing some frost protection, he said.