Watermelon grower copes with old and new challenges

by Nancy Riggs

Jack Dixon checks the progress of watermelon plants.

Jack Dixon has been growing watermelons most of his life in the southern Arizona desert. About 20 years ago, he purchased a farm in Picacho, Ariz., and established Red Hawk Farming, where he’s grown watermelons, cotton and wheat, typical crops for the arid desert land just north of Tucson. Rising production costs and increased competition from imported produce are forcing Dixon to place greater emphasis on efficient management.

About 4.3 billion pounds of watermelons were produced in the United States in 2008. Arizona is among the top five watermelon-producing states, which include Georgia, Florida, Texas and California. The five states produce about 75 percent of the total production in the United States, worth about $492 million.

While Red Hawk is primarily located in Pinal County, Ariz., Dixon grows watermelons in Yuma County as well. “We can hit the market just a little earlier with melons grown in Yuma County,” Dixon said. Gauging the best time to market for the highest price and producing watermelons in a cost-efficient manner are not only important goals, but essential to the survival of most growers.

Lewis (left) and Jack Dixon discuss the watermelon growing industry.

Growing watermelons

Dixon has grown about 600 acres of watermelons in the two locations, but this year has dropped down to about 400 acres. With the slightly lower elevation and earlier planting times in Yuma County, Dixon aims targeted the Memorial Day market with production at that location. His Picacho operation produced watermelons for shipping to meet the Fourth of July market.

Red Hawk has grown various improved watermelon varieties over the years, including the small, personal-sized watermelons. Currently, Red Hawk produces primarily Liberty seedless watermelons. “The chain stores want the seedless watermelons,” Dixon said, noting that the seedless watermelons are grown from transplants.

“Watermelon transplants are like any small seedling,” he said. “They’re very fragile. You have to pre-irrigate, and be sure that your soil conditions are just right. The seedless transplants are very weather-sensitive. They just require a lot more attention than plants grown from seed, and they’re much more labor-intensive.”

Efficient production management is essential to a profitable watermelon operation. The University of Arizona provides production expertise, including the latest on disease management. “We have very few pesticides that we can use,” Dixon said. “The university helps us with disease management.” Dixon cited occasional occurrences of downy mildew or powdery mildew. Dr. John Palumbo, UA research scientist and extension specialist, notes that a new virus transmitted by whiteflies, cucurbit yellow stunting disorder virus, is currently a major concern in Yuma County, but did not affect spring melons.

Dr. Jeff Silvertooth, UA Extension specialist, cited production costs as a major issue in allowing growers to compete with imports. “My job is to help growers produce more efficiently,” he said. He is working on developing a precision production plan for melons based on heat units accumulated in the plants similar to a plan he previously developed for cotton and chile.

Dixon experimented with growing the small, personal-sized watermelons that have gained popularity in recent years. He grew and marketed a variety of the small melon that he named “Jessie Mae” in honor of his mother. Due to the lower profitability of the personal-sized watermelons, he grows those only for personal use now.

Red Hawk watermelons are grown with black mulch. Following bed shaping, mulch is laid down with a hole punched in the mulch at the time it is laid. Transplants are planted by hand. His watermelons are planted at different times to provide an ongoing supply for the market. Dixon rotates the crop with cotton or wheat every three years, and contracts with a beekeeper to provide bees for pollination.

Irrigation is pretty much the norm in all melon growing operations now, but in the Arizona desert, irrigation is the lifeline for all crops. Dixon converted from flood irrigation to drip irrigation about 10 years ago for more efficient water use. His property has deep wells that he is required to lease to the city of Picacho. He uses primarily well water, which provides about 80 percent of his irrigation needs.

Bed shaping is done in preparation for mulch and watermelon transplants.

Central Arizona Project (CAP) water supplements the supply from wells as needed. CAP water is brought into the valley from the Colorado River. “We use the city water, the wells, as much as we can,” Dixon said. “It’s better water with less salt,” The water is brought in by irrigation canals, and 1,600 PSI pumps move the water into Red Hawk’s irrigation system. Water is carried to the fields in underground PVC pipelines.

Marketing, packing and shipping

Red Hawk shipped about 1,500 semitruck loads of watermelons last year. Dixon markets to a number of chain stores, including Wal-Mart, Kroger and numerous other outlets. Watermelons are shipped as far away as New York and into Canada.

When harvested, watermelons are taken to an on-site packing facility for cooling, sorting and packing. The watermelons were previously sorted by hand, and Dixon tried a number of sorting machines over the years that he found unsatisfactory. However, he is pleased with the ProSorter machine he purchased about three years ago. “It’s the best,” he said. The computerized machine is manufactured by Produce Sorters International in Visalia, Calif. The machine is produced in several models for various fruit and vegetable sorting. Using visible and near infrared technology, the machine is specifically designed for watermelon sorting and optically inspects the inside content of watermelons, grading for weight, sweetness and ripeness, as well as detecting external blemishes or bruises.

Jack Dixon discusses the excellent performance of his ProSorter machine.

“We have about 30 watermelon sorting machines in use now,” said Jim Warkentin, Produce Sorters International owner. The machine uses optics patented by Optical Measuring Systems of Three Rivers, Calif. The machine in use at Red Hawk can run up to about 60 tons of watermelons an hour.

Issues of concern

Red Hawk is a member of the Western Growers Association. A number of production and growing issues are of concern to all growers in the Southwest and across the nation. Dixon cited rising production costs through increased costs for fuel and other products. “Plastic mulch is $500 an acre,” he said.

Jack Dixon discusses bed shaping in the Picacho field.

Dixon expressed concern about the effect of imports on his operation and on the operations of other growers. He cited significant issues not only for melon growers, but citrus growers as well, noting that nearby lemon groves are being left unharvested due to exceedingly low profits. “We need to be placed on an even playing field,” he said of the need for modified regulations. “Lower-quality produce can be brought in, but we can export only first-quality.”

Labor is a major cost factor, and Dixon employs 12 to 15 people year-round. He expressed concern about the extent of paperwork involved in H2A programs. Dixon’s labor supply has not been a significant concern, but he noted that a workable guest worker program is needed by growers. “We can get people to work,” he said. “They do a good job for us.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.