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DALLAS -- It is said that everything's bigger in Texas, and the saying was apropos for the National Watermelon Association's 96th annual convention, held here Feb. 17-21 at The Fairmont Dallas hotel.

The convention set several records, including the total number of attendees (436), the total dollar amount ($533,261) that the association's watermelon auction raised, and the total number (61) of tractor-trailer loads of watermelons that were donated for the auction, NWA Executive Director Bob Morrissey told The Produce News.

Mr. Morrissey said that sponsorships for the event totaled $94,000, the most the association has ever received; the convention also had the largest exhibit center with 37 display spaces, the largest stage and the largest ballroom.

Todd Staples, Texas commissioner of agriculture, addressed attendees at the breakfast and opening general session Feb. 19, saying that he was "proud" of the state's watermelon production. "We have to remind ourselves that it all goes back to marketing and selling," he said. "We have to define who we are to the consumers of America and the world, and let them know we are the best stewards of the land because our livelihood depends on it."

Mr. Staples said that the Texas Department of Agriculture has a successful "Go Texan" marketing campaign and would be promoting Texas watermelons during the Memorial Day weekend. He also noted that the department would soon release its new "Agriculture is Your Culture" campaign to expand consumer awareness.

"We need to expand the minds of Americans so we can be as productive as we can," he said. "Not everyone appreciates agriculture, and we must not become dependent on foreign food. We have to leave it all out on the field."

Several members of the trade who were at the event for the first time told The Produce News at the annual awards banquet Feb. 20 that they were impressed with what they saw.

John Foley, a produce specialist for Metro Ontario Inc. in Toronto, was at the convention to accept an award on behalf of the retailer, whose Arnprior, ON, store won the first-ever national watermelon display contest last year. Mr. Foley told The Produce News that during his 15-year career in produce, "I have never experienced something like this before. I never knew the organization was as big and proud as it is. The hospitality has been great; in fact, this whole week has been great."

Mr. Foley noted that five Metro Ontario stores competed in the contest, and "we have received full support from our company for [watermelon] promotional events in the future and hope to have 25 stores participating this year."

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, who served as one of five judges of the watermelon queen competition, told The Produce News, "This is a wonderful event for the watermelon industry. It showcases the important issues for the next year, and while the pageant seems to be the focal point, a lot of business goes on here as well. It's important for the industry to get together once a year and set priorities."

Receiving recognition Publix Super Markets Inc. received the association's Marketing Excellence Award at the banquet and released a statement saying, "At Publix, we strive to meet our customers' needs 365 days a year. We're committed to exceeding customer expectations in a sustainable and food-safe environment. On behalf of our more than 141,000 associates in 1,011 stores across five states, we appreciate being recognized as a retailer focused on customer value, service and quality."

John Lapide of Brooklyn, NY-based Melon One and the association's outgoing president, passed the ceremonial gavel to Brent Harrison of Nogales, AZ- based Al Harrison Distributors Co., who will serve as the association's president for 2010.

Mr. Lapide said, "I have enjoyed my time as president. What other commodity group has as much fun as we do?"

Mr. Harrison looked forward to his year as president and told attendees, "I love this business. The industry is my life, and I really appreciate the opportunity and will serve you well."

Mr. Harrison will be assisted by Jim Schmidt of La Quinta, CA-based Sunterra West LLC and Lee A. (Al) Wroten Jr. of Lakeland, FL-based Global Produce Sales Inc., who will serve as the association's first and second vice presidents, respectively.

The banquet ended with the crowing of Jessica Southard, the 2009 Florida Watermelon Queen, as the NWA 2010 National Watermelon Queen. Lindsey Mann, the 2009 Georgia Watermelon Queen, and Melinda Gooch, the 2009 Alabama Watermelon Queen, were the first and second runners-up.