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Watermelon Season in the Bootheel

Friday, July 9, 2010

Left to right, David Henderson, Matt Jackson, Tommy McMahon, and Bud Henderson stand in front of hundreds of melons grown in and around Dunklin County.
(Photo provided)
Watermelon season has officially arrived in Southeast Missouri, according to Bud and David Henderson, owners of Semo Produce, in business since 1978.

This year the season started on July 4. According to the Hendersons, it began early this year because of the heat. The watermelon itself is a desert plant that fares well in hot temperatures. Too much moisture can cause disease.

Out of 114 counties in Missouri, Dunklin County produces and ships more watermelons than all the other 113 counties combined. The reason Dunklin County has such an abundance of watermelons is because Kennett sits on a sandy ridge which is conducive to growing. The sandy ridge growing area encompasses the cities of Sikeston, Malden, Arbyrd, Caruth and Kennett. When asked where their watermelons come from, David Henderson said that most come from local growers.

Watermelons have become a big business in recent years.

According to the Henderson's, "old timers" can remember when workers would load them in bulk on a truck and take them to the packing facility to be shipped out. Now, the process is the open bin concept in which the melons are sorted by size.

Semo Produce first picks the watermelons and loads them into an old school bus. After they are delivered to the packing plant, the watermelons are put on a grading table. Here, workers sort the melons by size, tag them for inventory control and check for any diseases, blemishes or bruising. They are then put into 24 inch bins and stacked three bins deep. They are now ready to be delivered to their destination.

The trend the last few years has been toward seedless watermelons. In 2006, 80 percent of the watermelon consumption was the seedless variety.

So how do you get a watermelon without seeds?

Dr. Paul Teague, past President of the Mo-Ark Watermelon Association and past President of the National Watermelon Promotion Board said, "The seedless watermelon is an F 3 hybrid and the end product is sterile. It has no seeds and can't reproduce. To make more seedless watermelon seeds you got to do the F 1, F 2, F 3 cross every year to come up with a seed to make the sterile hybrid seed."

This means in order to get a seedless watermelon, it takes three seedless plants and one seeded plant. The seeded plant has the pollen needed for pollination. This will produce a seedless watermelon but it will take three generations in order to produce.

The growing season for the seedless variety can be tricky and it is very expensive to grow. The Henderson's said that many of the farmers didn't want to jump on the bandwagon but the market is leaning toward seedless varieties. Someday, the seeded watermelon will be a thing of the past.

Seedless watermelons are becoming smaller and smaller fruit. To the growers, this can be good since they can pack more in a bin and the more they pack in a bin, the more profit they make. Also, per pound, the seedless watermelon has edible flesh and is loaded with vitamins.

"The seedless watermelon changed the whole system. This is the first binning operation for watermelons in Kennett city limits," Bud Henderson said.

When asked, when do watermelons get ready in the Bootheel, Henderson replied, "8:30 in the morning, first Monday after the 4th of July."

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Doesn't the Senath area grow watermelons anymore? As a teenager in the forties, I "pitched watermelons" many hot July-August days. I literally pitched these goodies from mule-drawn wagons and occasional trucks up to men in boxcars who stacked them for travel to places like St. Louis and Chicago (or so I was told). On a good day, I could earn as much as two bucks.

-- Posted by William Bost on Fri, Jul 9, 2010, at 11:05 PM

Yes Senath is bursting with melons, just across from Farmer's Union Gin on he left.

-- Posted by hang'em high on Sat, Jul 10, 2010, at 10:22 AM

While visiting in the Kennett area June 25th I didn't see melons as I did back a few years ago, and I was wondering if the farmers had stopped growing them, since before I always noticed stands along High way 25 both north and south from Kennett, but this time I only saw one stand up toward Holcomb, I must say melons don't grow very well here in the Flint, Michigan area, but I'd love to have a good sweet melon from the boot heal of Missouri.

-- Posted by Terry Allen on Sat, Jul 10, 2010, at 9:34 PM

It's bootheel, hot boot heal. We don't need to fix our shoes.

-- Posted by JungleJim on Sun, Jul 11, 2010, at 12:48 AM

I emailed this article to all three of my siblings, and they all agree that Bud reminds them of his daddy, Frank. How come the cap, Bud? You should be showing off that glorious head of white, flowing hair.

-- Posted by arbyrd01 on Sun, Jul 11, 2010, at 11:56 AM

Does anyone know if there is still a Watermelon Festival in the Hornersville area?

If not, anywhere else local?

-- Posted by shack1959 on Mon, Jul 12, 2010, at 9:04 AM

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