When naming Texas' leading vegetable crops, it's easy to get confused.
Texas is noted for its cabbage, spinach, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, chile peppers, cantaloupe, strawberries and blackberries. While not all of the above are technically vegetables, an old rule in the Lone State State says if it grows in Texas soil and often is served up on the table, then it must be a vegetable.
But when it comes to specialty crop production in Texas, it's true. No one would argue that cotton and corn and other grains of many types win the award for being the largest and most valued crops in the state – hands down. But watermelons follow as another of the most successful crops grown in Texas.
But Texans, like many folk across the nation, like their vegetables fresh and locally grown. So it's fair to ask, "What is the most favored Texas vegetable crop," and what vegetable crop is the most successful in the state?”
Dr. Larry Stein, fruit, nut and vegetable specialist at Uvalde's Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center, says the answer is easy—watermelons. And June and July, he says, is watermelon time in Texas.
GOOD CROP COMING
In spite of many usual and pesky problems associated with growing those big, beautiful Texas "thumpers," most reports have it that a good watermelon crop is headed our way this year.
"Watermelons have been one of the better crops we have around the Lower Rio Grande Valley," said Stein. "Other crops have had to deal with black rot and other disease issues, but watermelons have done well as the weather turned drier."
Texas favorite melon is grown in just about every corner of the state. While the Lower Rio Grande Valley gets the nod for growing the most commercial melon crops, watermelons can be found on farms and in gardens in just about every part of the state. The Annual Watermelon Thump, the largest festival in the state dedicated to watermelons is celebrating its 64th year June 22-25 this year in Luling.
Known for some of the sweetest melons grown in Texas, the Luling Watermelon Thump attracts huge crowds that participate in the Watermelon Thump car rally, seed-spitting competition, and a Watermelon Queen pageant the last weekend every June. The celebration has been going since 1953.
WATERMELON CAPITAL OF TEXAS?
But Diley, Texas, also makes the claim as being the "unofficial" self-proclaimed watermelon capital of Texas. Both communities sport statues (of sorts) of watermelons. But while the statue in Diley is made of concrete and located at the city park, it is smaller than most Texas watermelons. In Luling, however, the local water tower is shaped and painted like a watermelon.
Watermelons are also grown in large numbers in parts of East Texas and as far west as the Texas-New Mexico border, and just about all point between. And while the state's watermelon crop in recent years has been challenged by imports coming across the border from Mexico, melon growers in Texas will tell you their prime crop is still in great demand among "real" watermelon lovers.
Melvin Rutherford, of Hawkins (near Longview), grows melons on about 14 acres of irrigated farm land. He says late June is when roadside peddlers and melon aficionados from as far away as Louisiana make the annual pilgrimage to his farm to buy truckloads of his vine-ripe melons.
He says the art of marketing his melons depends on his growing schedule.
"Watermelons are a summer favorite in Texas," he reports, and the Fourth of July weekend is the biggest melon crunch of all. He says if he can have melons ready-for-sale by July 4th, he is going to have a good marketing year. But all summer—June-Aug.—is the prime watermelon time, and when Texas melons become ripe.
Cold weather and predator creatures like crows, coyotes, gophers and squirrels can be problematic as can diseases, especially in wet seasons. The real secret to watermelons, Rutherford says, is dry and hot weather, and generally a Texas summer offers plenty of that to go around.
Texas is the top producer of watermelons in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agriculture Statistics Service, and represents the No. 1 vegetable crop in Texas according to Stein.
The statewide watermelon crop in 2016 was worth more than $75 million, according to AgriLife Extension annual reports. That's down from $100 million a couple of years back. But the good news is that watermelons seem to be on everyone's grocery list, according to early reports this year, so it could be a good year for growing, and eating the big green giants.
PICKING THE PERFECT MELON
For the consumer, knowing how to pick the perfectly ripe, juicy melon is essential to finding the best for taste. That's where the term "thump" comes in. It comes down to when the watermelon was picked. In other words, watermelons don't continue to ripen after being harvested, like many other fruits, so it's no good to just buy one and let it ripen on the counter.
Look at the melon's belly. Watermelons do have an underside, or belly, known as the field spot, which is in contact with the ground throughout its growth. This spot on a ripe watermelon will usually be yellowish, not white, which indicates an unripe melon.
Next comes the thump test. Using your knuckles, rap on the middle of the watermelon while holding it up to your ear, if possible. A ripe watermelon will have a hollow sound when knocked, which sounds more like a plunk than a thwack. An unripe watermelon will have more of a higher pitched sound, while an overripe one will make a thud or a lower-pitched sound.
Next, sniff it. Believe it or not, a truly ripe melon has a light smell to it. A ripe watermelon should smell slightly sweet, and similar to what a melon tastes like. Now, squeeze it gently. The rind of the melon shouldn't be soft, as the skin of some fruits get when ripe, but it also shouldn't be hard as a rock, with no give to it at all.
Finally, when you narrow down the melon to two or three you think are the best, generally speaking, the heavier the melon, the better it will be.