Watermelon is watermelon, where ever it’s grown. Attendees at the National Watermelon Association’s 100th birthday celebration in Savannah, GA, Feb. 19-23 will get a chance to find that out firsthand, as a contingent of Australian growers will be attending the Savannah celebration as part of a U.S. tour.
So how does the Aussie industry differ from the U.S. industry? There are some 400 growers who produced 136,861 tons in 2007, 152,140 tons in 2008 and 131,112 tons in 2009. Growers are scattered pretty much around the coasts of the continent, usually in remote areas.
“In Australia, we grow different varieties, predominantly seedless watermelon on plastic mulch with trickle irrigation and fertigation,” said Dianne Fullelove, industry development manager for the Australian Melon Association, Inc.
“Watermelon is produced in quite remote areas such as Northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The tyranny of distance means that there are transport issues in getting fruit to market. Fruit tends to be sold as a commodity with little value adding or branding. It is used in food service with juices and fruit salads. We are interested in understanding the marketing system in the U.S. and the types of value-adding that occur.”
The visiting Aussie growers will be in the United States through March 4 and will head to Naples, FL, after the convention to learn more about the American growing process and visit with seed companies.
Given that many U.S. growers speak with a Southern accent while the Aussies have their own charming dialect, is there any chance of miscommunication?
“I don’t believe that we have an accent!” Fullelove joked. “However, I am sure that growers speak the same language no matter where they come from. We hope that we can get onto farms as much as possible, as this is where growers communicate well and share their stories. I suspect there is absolutely no difference between Australian and American growers.”
But the Aussies do hope to establish stronger links with their U.S. counterparts while also looking at new varieties and industry trends.
The vast majority of Australian watermelon is sold pre-cut at retail.
“Consumers are shy of buying uncut melon as they are unsure of the quality,” Fullelove explained. “Growers have had no impact on this. It is done by the retailers after buying whole fruit from growers. Retailers are concerned about the amount of shrinkage they get and will reject bulk bins of fruit if they find fruit that has poor internal quality. The issue with cut fruit is that it must be kept cool, so it is kept in refrigerators. A lot of greengrocers here only have a small refrigerated section in their shops and so melon has to claim its shelf space, competing against many other products.”
As in the United States, the Aussies are working to promote year-round consumption of what is still seen as mainly a summertime treat.
“It is seen as primarily a summer fruit. We would like to move it into an all year-round ingredient but this type of promotion is expensive and we do not have any promotional funding for the industry,” Fullelove said.
The Australians hope to pick up some tips from their U.S. counterparts in that department, as well as “greater understanding of other growing practices and techniques and ideas that may benefit our industry,” Fullelove said. “I think greater cooperation between industries can only be beneficial. We are not competitors and can share ideas and thoughts that can benefit both groups.”