A bright future into the third generation at Wilkersons Farm

The Wilkersons watermelon growing empire inTrenton, Fla., is heading into its third generationwith B.J. Wilkerson. At 25, he has a degree in agriculturalscience from the University of Florida, where healso minored in agricultural law, and he could have gone justabout anywhere with that combination. What he discovered,though, in returning home is that there isn’t anything thatmakes him happier than being on the family farm.

A new three-row plastic layer is put to good use this year.

“My grandfather [J.D. Wilkerson] farmed, and my daddy [Michael Wilkerson] is still farming, and they all said that I would be the smart one and do something different,” Wilkerson says. “It’s just a way of life. It’s what my family has done.”

What the family is finding through the years is that through strategic land acquisition and dependable long-term leases, the utilization of technology and a keen eye on input costs, they can double and triple yields. Luck helps, as well as plain old get-dirty hard labor.

Hands-down, watermelons – with seeds and without – are the Wilkerson’s leading crop. They generally plant about 250 acres a year, but are bumping that to 400 acres of watermelons this year, planting about the first of March, and generally producing an average 40,000 pounds per acre.

Despite some serious competition even within the county – seven or eight growers, all farming 40 to 400 acres of watermelons – the time could be ripe for real growth. Wilkerson says that last year quite a few watermelon growers closed shop in their region, north-central Florida, about 30 miles west of Gainesville and up into Georgia, when the price per pound fell through the floor at 8 cents a pound.

B.J. Wilkerson, top, with his parents.

A typical range is 14 to 15 cents a pound, and sometimes as high as 20 cents a pound. Figuring a yield of 30,000 to 50,000 pounds per acre a season, at 8 cents, “that’s not a whole lot of money, plus your costs for labor for picking, the boxes, the pallets, the cost of food safety regulations,” he says. “But there’s never a predictor. There’s no commodity market for produce, but from all the talk, it ought to be a pretty good year for watermelons.”

Georgia provides stiff competition, but Wilkerson says the warehouses are closer to Florida, and more growers may back out yet and leave more of the market for the Wilkersons. If the prices for peanuts and cotton are up in Georgia (the early call), then they’ll grow less watermelon.

“We’ll know by mid-May when we start picking,” he says.

Most of the Wilkersons’ product gets shipped to Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine. They pick from mid-May to late June or even early July, and ship each day. “Watermelon doesn’t last long,” Wilkerson says of the pressure to move the product quickly.

Still, the greatest challenge remains “getting those watermelons sold and staying afloat.” “We always need to take care of that part,” he says. “For the better part of a 30-day window we’re going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from midnight to bed to back up at 6 a.m. and back to midnight. It’s a gamble for all of us, but some years it’s more of a gamble than others, but there are challenges with any produce. There are no guarantees. There’s no such thing as a backup plan. You would do just as well to go off to Vegas, but my daddy taught me to give the job my best.”

Peculiar produce

Watermelons remain an expensive crop, costing about $2,000 to $2,500 an acre to grow each year. Since they cannot be grown back-to-back in the same farmland, and that land requires a five or six-year fallow period, the challenge is even greater. This season, the Wilkersons are growing watermelon in five different fields, most in fields of less than 40 acres.

“It’s a lot different than farming out west,” Wilkerson says. “Here we have lots of 20-acre or 40-acre fields. It’s the way we have to split it up. I’ve been to Indiana and Kansas, and it’s a lot more work when you’re growing in the southeastern portion of the United States. We don’t have the dirt they’ve got. I’d love to have a piece of Indiana dirt.”

In Florida, there are not mass expanses of land, making land acquisition a major focus of Michael’s each year, especially since they have long-term leases on the majority of their land. They bought 230 acres within the last three years, and now own about 500 of the acres they farm, but the challenge each year is finding what is already good farmland, and also farmland that hasn’t already been gobbled up by the heavy dose of peanut farmers in the region.

Some fields they’ll keep and try a different crop from year to year, or follow a watermelon crop with ryegrass or oats and let it winter over. If they continue as proper stewards of the lands they lease, they never have a problem extending a lease.

“Anyone you ask, they’ll tell you we do a good job at it,” Wilkerson says. “We take pride in keeping the land neat and clean. You drive up to one of our farms or fields, and you say, ‘Hey, these people look out for their stuff.'”

The best land for planting watermelon is ground that’s been in grassland or hay fields, or land that’s had cows fertilizing it for a long period of time. There’s not a particular soil that’s best, so much as the status of the soil.

“My daddy knows where some of it is at, but he’s lived here his whole life, so most people know him,” Wilkerson explains. “They know if they have a piece of land, they know he’s a farmer they can ask about it, and so he seems to find it every year.”

In all, the family farms about 1,200 acres in 12 locations, adding and subtracting land by the season depending on “what we’re doing,” he says. They’ve also just returned to growing cucumbers, and there’s also a herd of 150 cattle, but he swears the empire is a small operation.

“We don’t like to have all our eggs in one basket, though we don’t mess with no chickens,” Wilkerson says.

Operations are kept within the family, and any sort of transition is “still in the works,” he says. “My daddy controls it, but all of the family gets some say, so we all get input.”

Technology and improvements

Technology, Wilkerson says, is what’s going to make farming possible in the next generation. It’s what will allow farmers to control how efficient they can be.

There’s a pivot irrigation system to help when it doesn’t rain quite enough, and field-site computers to monitor it all. “We’re trying to get to the point where I can sit at a computer in my truck and turn the [irrigation] systems on and off, so that I know what’s happening and where, so we don’t have to go to each field. With gas prices, it doesn’t take long to figure out how expensive it is to drive around.”

Since last year, a John Deere GPS technology operates their tractors. It’s equipment that Wilkerson says is changing the game. It saves on fuel and time. “You can be out plowing a field [before] and you might overlap a foot or two here and there, and not think that that adds up, but by the end of the day, that’s a lot,” he says. “Technology has only benefits. I don’t believe it will ever hurt to invest in technology. It may not pay for itself the first year or the next year, but the year after, you’re good to go.”

The Wilkersons have also bought a three-row plastic layer and a three-row planter that will be used for the first time this season. “We’re always trying to do as much as we can with less tractor work and less people,” he says.

As for the gap between his love for technology and his father’s, well, “Daddy likes the technology,” he says. “He likes the job it does, but as far as using it, he doesn’t know how. He calls me.”

The first time the family saw the GPS the local John Deere salesman was out for a demonstration. They figured it would miss and leave a gap, but it didn’t. Wilkerson likes the fact that he can get on the tractor now and it gives him time to think. Plus, at the end of the day, he’s not so worn out. He likes looking behind the tractor to see the job it’s doing rather than worrying about where the machine is heading next.

Last year, the family built a 15,000-square-foot watermelon packing shed, a $150,000 expense. For packing and quick storage, the Wilkersons used to use a shed they leased at a farmers’ market across from one farm. In the shed, the watermelons get stacked from floor to ceiling, but they’re never in there for more than two days before they’re shipped.

The cucumbers are a new but old venture. Michael had grown them years ago. They picked up a packing line in Georgia and found space at one end of the new shed where the cucumbers are washed, waxed and sorted by size. “Last year we didn’t do too badly, but nothing to brag about,” Wilkerson says. “We have good deals lined up with our watermelons, so now we have to work on deals for our cucumbers.”

There were 40 acres of cucumbers last fall. This year, the plan was to plant 30 acres in the spring and 40 acres in the fall, but rest assured, the spring focus for the Wilkersons will always be watermelons.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.