Who doesn’t like the juicy taste of a ripe watermelon on a hot summer day? Or any other time, really.
Well, I just found out all the hard work, experience, science, and sweat it takes to place these delicious fruits on our table.
Arriving at Ryals Melons in Fort Ogden, I pulled my truck up to a busy loading dock where watermelons are traveling down a conveyer belt from converted school buses where dozens of men wash, grade, and pack them into large cardboard containers. Forklift drivers loaded the heavy boxes onto trucks that would take them to their final destination, for me a front-seat lesson in farm-to-table agriculture. It was all I could do to stay out of the way of this organized confusion.
Looking behind me and there was the smiling face of Jay Ryals, son of Dan Ryals, owner of the farm. Soon Dan arrived and we were off to take a look at 120 row acres of watermelons. By the way, a row acre is calculated by adding up the area taken up by just the rows, not the ditches between them.
The Ryals grow seedless melons such as Melody and Sweet Polly, experimenting with Red Amber. Watermelons are planted in sandy soil in mid-February. The weather needs to be hot and dry to produce the best crop. “It’s ironic,” said Dan, a third-generation DeSoto farmer, “that the one thing a watermelon can’t stand is water.”
The first step in getting chilled melon in our hands is plowing the soil and building the rows. Next comes a watering drip-line, then a plastic sheet for ground cover to keep weeds in check. A small hole is cut in the plastic at regular intervals and the young plant is pushed into the ground next to the drip-line.
Fertilizer is added to the water that flows in the drip-line. This process is called fertigation. Dan explained that “we fertilize every day; once a week we take tissue samples and adjust the fertilizer accordingly.”
Dan’s grandfather, H.D., came to Arcadia from Hillsborough County in the 1920s. At that time it was all open range and he and his brother, Cleve, ran cattle from Dade City to Matlacha (Pine Island), and from Sarasota to Okeechobee. These were tough people. Central Florida has a few dozen of these generational families still farming. “My grandfather,” Dan said, “started buying land back then ... and it’s been in the family ever since.”
DeSoto’s fruit pickers are with the H-2A guest worker program. Contractors bring them from Mexico, provide living quarters and guaranteed wages. It is the life of a nomad, part of farming around the world for thousands of years.
“Most of these men work through the season, then they go home,” Dan Ryals explained. “They start in Clewiston, then go to Wildwood. When my crew is finished here in Fort Ogden, they will go to Tipton, Georgia. The Wildwood crew will go to Cordele, Georgia. The whole process gradually moves north as the watermelon crops ripen, so they will be picking watermelon all the way through September. At the end of the season, they go back to Mexico, and some of them won’t have to work at all until they start again in April or May.”
Watching these young workers picking melons, I notice one crew choosing the ripest melons, cutting or slipping them, and placing them on top of the rows. The second crew followed, moving the melons to a converted school bus, the one you see with the windows missing and the green melons peeking over the edges where kids once sat. They form a “bucket line,” the first man moving melons from the ground, carefully tossing it to the next man and so on till the last man stacks them on the bus for processing, crating and off in trucks backed into loading stations. There are no machines to work this process. The cycle repeats over the next month or so as more melons ripen for harvesting.
I couldn’t help but notice the smiles and laughter coming from the workers as I photographed them. “Take a picture of me, not him ... he’s too ugly,” that kind of poking fun. One worker even ran up to me, took out his phone and pointed to the Facebook logo. I’m sure he wanted his family back home to see a picture of him working.
For me, it was a real learning experience. Writing this, I’m realizing the workers were just as welcoming as my hosts, Jay and Dan Ryals. I thank them all for their hospitality, for keeping Florida agriculture thriving and feeding the world.
And for the important lesson in placing food on our tables.