In 1913, U.S. watermelon growers began holding a series of informal discussions about how to better their position. As that year progressed, so did they. It soon became clear that this loose collection of growers needed a formal organization to represent their interests and in March 1914 the group gathered in Atlanta for the first time as an assembly. They left as what today is the National Watermelon Association, which will kick off its centennial celebration at its annual convention Feb. 20-24 at the Westin La Cantera Resort in San Antonio, TX.
Founded as the Melon Distributors Association, the group changed its name in 1945 to the Watermelon Growers & Distributors Association. In 1969 that grew to the National Watermelon Growers & Distributors Association Inc. Finally, in 1977, after one more change the organization became the National Watermelon Association Inc.
Today the NWA has nine chapters: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois-Indiana, Maryland-Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Western.
All will be represented at the upcoming convention, a star-studded gala that will feature some of the industry’s top players along with first-rank entertainment.
“This will be the biggest event that we’ve ever had in our 99-plus year history,” said NWA Executive Director Bob Morrissey. “We only turn 100 one time so we wanted to do it right, and I believe we’re doing that. We’ve got the best program we’ve ever put together.”
And while there will be plenty of time for fun, Mr. Morrissey was quick to note the agenda is also packed with educational and political programs that will keep the focus on the business of watermelons.
“One of the things we wanted to make sure of is that we’re getting business done,” Mr. Morrissey said. “Yes, we are going to have a lot of fun, but we are doing an extreme amount of work to make sure that we honor and respect and express and share the traditions and the background and the support and the involvement that we’ve had for so, so many years from our forefathers and our grower-shippers. We are going to honor the original intentions of the association founders.”
But first, the fun stuff.
The festivities begin Feb. 20 with afternoon golf and skeet-shooting tournaments. Then attendees get down to business with committee meetings starting at 8 a.m. Feb. 21.
That evening brings the President’s Reception and the anxiously awaited Blue Jeans and Diamonds convention kickoff party featuring multi-platinum country music artists Little Texas.
Business continues Feb. 22 with the Opening Breakfast Session followed by a traditional watermelon seed-spitting contest and a fund-raising auction that will go well into the afternoon.
Attendees will be on their own the evening of Feb. 22 before business begins again Feb. 23 with the Celebration Breakfast Session followed by an early evening closing reception and the annual awards banquet that night.
The NWA has managed to reach out to the industry and the entertainment world to create a power-packed itinerary.
Texas Gov. and former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry videotaped a greeting that will launch the festivities.
Michelle Smith, senior policy analyst with the Food & Drug Administration, will be on hand to discuss new food-safety laws, and Craig Reggelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform will discuss immigration reform.
While Little Texas will provide musical entertainment, comedian Gallagher will take some time out from his farewell tour to provide laughs, meet fans and sign autographs (and smash some watermelons, of course).
“Gallagher has smashed millions of pounds of watermelon. When he retires later this year watermelon can be taken off the endangered species list,” Mr. Morrissey quipped.
There is one other guest who is shrouded in mystery and has been for several months. Only Mr. Morrissey and a handful of insiders know the identity of this person, but Mr. Morrissey promises his presence will be a head-turner.
“Everybody, no matter who they are, is really going to enjoy his appearance. Any American that’s over 3 years old will recognize him by face or voice and probably 75-80 percent of the civilized world would recognize him immediately. There are only a handful of us internally who know who it is and those were the only people I was allowed to tell,” Mr. Morrissey said. “He’ll be around for another hour or so after he joins us to take pictures — people will line up for that once they see who it is.”
Throughout the convention, the NWA archives will be on display to the public for the first time, featuring historical documents and photos that show the history of the organization.
The NWA’s Mr. Morrissey believes prospects for the next century are as bright as for the one concluding.
“We’re all in this business to do one thing: to sell watermelons. That’s as simplistic as I can make it. Our job is to help our members and the industry sell more watermelons and that’s why we go to work every day and what we’re charged to do,” Mr. Morrissey said.
“I think we’ve got a great lineup, I’m not sure we could put together a better one.” he continued. “We’ve got the best educational program we’ve ever had, a great deal of involvement with our watermelon archives and honoring those that built this organization across the years and supported it, we have world-class entertainment and there are some other surprises that you’ll just have to be there to see. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be educational, more important, it’s going to be worthwhile. This will be a produce convention like no other. We only turn 100 once. This is our time.”