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Erratic and unusual weather patterns delayed the start of the 2010 watermelon season; there will be no such repeat in 2011. Growing conditions throughout the United States have been perfect, the season’s first domestic melons were cut ahead of schedule in Florida during the first week of April, and the market is reasonably solid.

watermelonsA Prime Time International crew harvesting watermelons in Coachella, CA. The national watermelon crop is looking to be of very high quality with good volumes. (Photo courtesy of Prime Time)

 

“It looks like everything is lined up perfectly this year,” said Jason Hanselman, a Rochester, NY-based analyst with the National Watermelon Promotion Board. “It looks like a really good, early season. Florida is going to be earlier than usual this year, but that’s not going to displace anything from other regions — you’re just going to have more volume on the market. California will start to come in around May 1 and will start to pick up shortly thereafter; Arizona is a couple of days behind that. Texas picks up heavily around May 1. As you get into May, you’re talking at least 5.5 million to 6 million pounds a day on the market. By mid-May, it’s 10 million a day. It’s really big.”

In early April, there were already 3.5 million to 4 million pounds of watermelons coming to market daily, mostly from Mexico. With Florida expected to hit its stride by April 20, volume will be significant. Other states will likely come to market early as well.

“Typically, Texas you can expect May 1 and on to have good, marketable volume, and prior to that in previous years, we’ve seen good, marketable crops as well. It looks like from what I’ve heard from some guys there, they are shooting for late April and they won’t have a problem getting that out there before May. The majority will be shipping the first week of May, and they’re going to be crushing it then,” Mr. Hanselman said. “California is the same story: fantastic weather, lots of sun, a nice early crop. I don’t think supply will be any problem at all.”

Across the nation, “rains have been right, sun has been right, cool nights have been right — everything is ideal growing conditions across the map, and we’re hearing really good stuff,” Mr. Hanselman said. “These guys have just been out there knee-deep in the fields. And from everything I’ve heard, it’s not just a volume thing; there’s going to be excellent quality as well — some real good stuff.”

That is a welcome change from 2010, when abysmal weather in almost every growing area delayed the crop by two weeks or more in some places. In 2008 and again in 2009, the U.S. watermelon market totaled 1.2 billion pounds in April and May alone, accounting for a quarter of the total of the entire year’s crop. Even with the late start in 2010, the market was 1.125 billion pounds for those two months, Mr. Hanselman said. This season should rival the industry’s best in the last decade, he added.

Mexico sends about 445 million pounds of watermelon across the border into the United States each spring. Florida is the nation’s leading domestic producer, yielding about 371 million pounds in April-May. Texas comes in second at 157 million, while California produces 49 million pounds.

Chandler Mack of McMelon Inc. in Lake Wales, FL, who is also president of the National Watermelon Promotion Board, said, “The weather has been really good. It’s been warm. It’s starting to bring a lot of melons. You’ll see a lot more volume towards the end of the month than you usually see this time of year.”

Mr. Mack said that some Florida growers in Immokalee in the southern part of the state began harvesting small amounts the first week of April. At McMelon, ”We’re really looking at a lot of fruit starting … around [April] 18th, and from what I’m hearing, even more the following week.”

Mr. Mack said that there have been no indications of disease or pest pressures. And “great growing weather usually translates into a high-quality crop, so we’re hopeful that everything will stay on course as far as that’s concerned. And if the weather cooperates up north, it should be a pretty good season.”

Weather has been perfect for growing in the South and elsewhere, and rising temperatures in the Northeast bode well for increasing demand and creating a solid market.

Given the apparent abundance of the crop, “I have seen some pretty aggressive pricing strategies for the month of May,” Mr. Mack said. “Usually when people are doing that, it means they have some pretty good volume and are getting in position to move that volume. You didn’t hear too much of that last year. There were a lot of people who knew there wouldn’t be much fruit the month of May, and for the most part, you didn’t hear too many of those aggressive pricing strategies going on. Every indication is showing me it’s going to be a good season at least starting off.”

Mr. Hanselman concurred. “We’re seeing great weather, and there are already reports of great quality and volume coming out of Florida, Texas and California. On the supply side, there’s going to be a ton of great, great watermelon available for consumers, and hopefully that will keep the price where it needs to be for both sides. Everybody should benefit from this — I really don’t see a downside. It looks like we’re going to have great supply, which will keep the price where it should be — it’s win-win-win all around, as long as the weather holds up and we continue to see great supply and great demand nationwide.”

The market was down a bit over the winter as imports flooded the market, but on April 12, “We’re right back in line the last four or five weeks,” Mr. Hanselman said. “Typically, we start to see prices drop as supply comes on. We’re above the average market, and I see no reason why it’s going to drop off any time soon. A big reason for that is all this great weather. We’ve been seeing great weather up north. It’s been warmer than normal, and I think it’s going to get a lot of people out and about. I live in Rochester, New York; we just got all the snow scraped off and got our first sunny week and everybody was out and wanted to do something. Watermelon is a big part of that.”

(For more on watermelons, see the April 25, 2011, issue of The Produce News.)