Local watermelon harvest in full swing

Matt Jones jumps out of his pickup truck in the middle of 200 acres of watermelon vines and cuts loose a sweet, seedless melon. He slices it in half and then carves out a piece in the shape of a cone.

“This is the only way to eat watermelon,” the owner of Jones & Jones Enterprises, Inc. says.

He is flanked by a team of cutters on one side and up ahead is a harvest crew of six, three on each side of a gutted bus throwing watermelons down the chain and finally they are gently stacked and become part of the next load headed to the sorting shed.

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cutters release watermelons from the vine in field

The harvest crews start at about 9 a.m. each morning, that way the morning dew has evaporated, says Jones. It’s best to wait for the melons to dry off to prevent the spread of disease through the moisture. It also keeps sand from getting stuck to the melons, which can cause scratches as they are handled.

“First thing in the morning we send out cutters,” says Jones, 51, who grew up working the watermelon business on his grandparents’ farm, Dal-Don Produce, and took over the business his parents started about six years ago. 

Watermelon harvest crew load the bus.

“You don’t just pick everything,” he says about the expertise of his cutters, who scan the field for the latest prime melons. “People have to know the difference between what’s right, roll them over, and the buses come out and load them.”

Watermelon sorting on conveyor belt

By noon Wednesday, the harvest operation Jones is overseeing on a 200-acre farm in Newberry is in full swing.

watermelon cut in half in field

 The loaded buses make their way to the sorting and packing shed, where they are unloaded by hand onto a conveyor belt. Quality control supervisor Juan Molina is the first to scan the melons that are headed toward the labeler and then to the packing crew. 

  Those cardboard bins will hold an average of 35-count for medium seedless melons. Once the bins are full, they are loaded by crew into semi trucks making up about 40,000 pounds of freight per truck.

 Jones is a farmer at times, and also serves as a buyer, broker and shipper, depending on which location he is at—ranging from South Florida to North Central Florida to his acreage in Missouri.

 He buys and ships to major grocery outlets throughout the United States, including Walmart, Publix and Whole Foods.

 Jones is constantly on the phone dealing with all of the moving parts and crunching the numbers.

“It’s an open market and it fluctuates as the price changes day by day,” Jones says.

 Six months ago, Walmart set the price for this summer’s harvest, he says.

Forklift moves bins of watermelon to storage and shipping
 “When it comes down to it, the price can fluctuate depending on supply and quality of growing season, and Walmart has been very good about re-evaluating and will pay the market price,” Jones says. “To move the product, you need to have the businesses lined up.”

This field is producing tons of Red Garnet, Cracker Jack and Captivation varieties of watermelon, plus some seeded melons that ensure pollination of the crops.

At the Newberry location, Jones pays a farmer to tend to the fields and he oversees the harvest and distribution.

It was six years ago that Jones took over the family business full time after retiring from the United State Coast Guard.

“I was born a Gator,” he says, adding that his mother was a UF student when she gave birth to him at UF Shands Hospital. Jones went on to get a degree in marine environmental sciences from UF.

All those years of growing up around the watermelon industry and working in the fields and packing sheds have brought him to where he is today, taking over the operations of Jones & Jones and handling the challenges as well as the successes.

 “We have had some hurdles and constraints this year,” he says, referring to profit margins.

 As the price of lumber has steadily increased, so has the cost of the wooden pallets used to store and ship the watermelon bins.

 “They used to be $6 to $7,” Jones says about the pallets. “Now they go for $13 to $14 a pallet.”

 And then there is the cost of shipping.

 The freight coming out of Florida to Indiana last year was $1,800 to $2,000 a load, but this year it’s $3,500, he says. “The price of the watermelons isn’t much different, but some of the supplies are doubled, so that comes right back to the farmer.”

 As far as yield for this year, Jones says the harvest in South Florida has been much better than North Florida due to the drought.

 “In South Florida the vines were thigh high,” Jones says, and that provided shade over the melons and allowed for a thick crop.

“This here just didn’t fill in as much,” he says about the vines sprawled out on the Newberry location. “It’s a little weaker.”

Matt Jones tastes fresh watermelon in the field.

To quantify the season, Jones said he usually measures the yield of melon per acre.

“Watermelons used to be sold by the pound and a lot of people talk tonnage,” Jones says. “But we sell by the bin and measure more by the load.”

A good crop will produce a 40,000 pound load per acre. That’s one semi truck full.

“If you get a load to the acre, 40,000 pounds per load, you’re usually going to make money if you get that kind of volume,” Jones said.

At his farm in Wauchula, Jones said his company harvested above average counts of about 1.75 loads per acre.  “They did really well down there,” he says. 

Jones estimates that the harvest in Newberry will yield about 150 to 160 loads from the 200 acres which equates to about 75 percent of the potential he was hoping for and that will offset the gains from the harvest down south.

 “Here, with the 200 acres total and it’s dry, the vines didn’t get the water they needed,” he says.

According to UF/IFAS extension agent Tatiana Sanchez, who specializes in commercial horticulture, the watermelon harvest can fluctuate between 20,000 to 60,000 pound loads per acre annually in the Suwannee Valley farm region, which includes Alachua, Levy, Gilchrist, Columbia and Union counties.

She agreed that 40,000 pounds of watermelon harvested per acre is “a good year.” And 50,000 pounds or more per acre is considered a “phenomenal” yield.

“It changes from year to year depending on diseases and if the market stays high or if they go back to the fields to reharvest,” she says.

Harvest crew member tosses a watermelon in a field.

“If the market price falls, then it’s not worth it to go back and pick,” she says, and it will cost more for farmers to harvest the last rounds of ripening melons than to leave them behind.

“The dry weather helped keep diseases low,” she says, noting that of the more than 21,000 acres of watermelons harvested throughout Florida, about one-third—7,500 acres—are located in the Suwannee Valley region.


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