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Domestic season off to a slow start due to cool weather; imports meet demand as production ramps up

Cool weather has delayed or slowed watermelon production in the southern United States and consumption in northern states, but steady supplies from farther south have been adequate to meet demand as the Florida and Texas deals come on in earnest this month.

By April 5 last year, Florida had already shipped 74 loads of seedless watermelon in 40,000 pound units, according to the USDA’s Agricultural Reporting Service. This year, just 24 loads had shipped by that date. For the same time frame in 2012, Watermelon-1A slow start to the domestic watermelon season is due to cooler-than-normal weather in the southeastern United States. (Photo by Chip Carter)Florida shipped 28 loads versus just six in in 2013. Final totals for the year were 12,199 loads of seedless and 2,504 loads of seeded watermelon from the Sunshine State.

Growers project they will at least come close to those same final season numbers this year, but an early March freeze and lingering cold has delayed the start of the season and hindered volume in a trend that may well set the tone for the rest of the deal as it moves northward.

“Our Florida crop got hit a few times with frost early on, at the end of February and the first week of March,” said Ricky Hardy of Rhodesdale, MD-based B&K Farms LLC, which has operations in Arcadia, FL, in the northern part of the state as well as in South Carolina. “It’s been very, very cold, a few nights of 22-28 degrees — that hasn’t been good for the watermelons. I think they are going to be on the smaller side because of the cold weather —watermelons mature and bloom in so many days no matter what, so you’re not going to have heavy volume in weight as far as 36 count.”

Mr. Hardy said B&K’s Florida production should ramp up near the end of April and that he expects the rest of the deal will likely be delayed as well.

“Last year when it was real warm early in Florida, that followed all the way up the East Coast,” Mr. Hardy said. “This is a whole different year by far, even in Maryland we’re behind. In our years of farming up and down the East Coast, we’ve seen what starts in Florida will follow its way up the coast. If it’s wet in Florida, we’re generally going to have a wet, early year; if it’s dry, that follows up the coast. If that’s the case this year I’m a little worried about Maryland since it’s still cold in Florida. I’ve already told the Maryland team to hold off, we’re going to push back Maryland a little bit, seven to 10 days.”

While Texas remains exceedingly dry, the watermelon crop there is in good shape and production is on schedule to reach full volume in early May. Last year the Lone Star State shipped 45,205 loads of seedless watermelon (far and away the category leader) for the season, just behind Florida’s 48,797 (California shipped 46,174 loads but its varied production areas keep it in the deal throughout the entire season). Both states trailed domestic leader Georgia, which shipped 56,976 loads last year. The Western Hemisphere production leader was Mexico with 63,243 loads.

Meanwhile production from Mexico and other southern climates is way ahead of 2012 totals. By April 5, 4,018 loads had crossed from Mexico at Progreso, TX, compared to 2,796 for the same period in 2012, though crossings at Pharr, TX, were down to 833 from 1,271 in 2012. Guatemalan imports into Tampa, FL, were 1,093 loads versus 205 in 2012. Honduras had shipped 253 loads into Tampa versus 174 in 2012. Even Panama was up on the board, with 16 loads entering Tampa versus one for the same period in 2012.

The slow start to the domestic deal matters much less when one considers that cooler weather in the Northeastern United States puts a crimp in demand for watermelon. Once the weather breaks, production will ramp up and demand will follow.

“When the weather is nice, people are going to eat watermelon,” said Jason Hanselman of the National Watermelon Promotion Board in Orlando, FL.

Added Florida grower Arnold Mack of McMelon Inc. in Lake Wales, FL, “I’ve never seen anyone come out of the grocery store with an umbrella under one arm and a watermelon under the other.”