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Farmer goes from dairy to melons

Bad milk prices in the dairy business over the past several years have some farmers looking for new ways to make a living.

One farmer near Franklinton, La., has begun to look at vegetables as a way to live off the land and continue to enjoy what he loves.

LSU AgCenter County Agent Henry Harrison has been working with former dairy farmer Rickey Ingram to prepare him for life after the dairy business. Ingram, who had been in the dairy business for nearly 30 years, said it just got to the point that he couldn't make money milking cows.

“When I graduated from high school in 1975, it seemed like everybody was making money in the dairy business. Since I didn't want to go to college, I went into the business with my dad as a partner,” Ingram said.

For the next five years they farmed together until his father sold out, and Ingram went into the dairy business on his own.

But what started out as a good business just continued to get worse. Ingram said February of this year was when he knew he had gone as far as he could go.

“I didn't know what I was going to do, and then it hit me. I realized that Washington Parish has a reputation for growing watermelons. I knew that Henry has been working real hard with the growers, so I decided to give it a try,” Ingram said.

Ingram was surprised two months ago to have people calling from a hundred miles away looking for his melons.

“I like to sell something that people want, and this year I'm trying watermelons, cantaloupes, muskmelons and hay to generate income where cows used to,” Ingram said.

Not only is he involved in summer crops as a source of income, but he is already making plans to plant pumpkins, shallots and mustard greens for a fall crop.

Harrison said that there is still an honest dollar to be made on the farm, and he looks for any opportunity to bring LSU AgCenter experts out to see what can be done to help vegetable producers in the area to market a bigger crop.

“When you really look at it, we are a trucker's market versus a broker's market, which means that Rickey has 15 acres of watermelons that he can sell wholesale for $4 each out of the field rather than sell to a broker who will buy the whole field on a per pound basis,” Harrison said. “This way, he can make more money by the pickup truck load than he would by selling to a broker at 6 cents per pound for 18-wheeler loads. In a trucker's market, like we have here in Washington Parish, the farmer makes a profit and the guy that sells the melons at the roadside stand also makes a decent profit. It's a win-win for everybody.”

Ingram said he needs to be 10 people right now — when the melons are ready they don't wait. When he planted the crop, he was depending on his son to help in the harvest. But his son just got a job, so it's a juggling act that he seems to be enjoying.

“I have watermelons and cantaloupes that need to be picked. I have hay that needs to be cut, and I have pumpkins that need to be planted. But this is the life I love,” Ingram said.

Harrison said that the LSU AgCenter has been a promoter of watermelon production and marketing in Washington Parish since 1983, when a group of watermelon and vegetable producers met to establish a vegetable growers association and a watermelon festival.

“As a result of these efforts, there are now 125 farm families growing 15 different vegetables and fruits, with 675 acres in watermelons. The income to farmers totals nearly $1 million from watermelon sales alone,” Harrison said.

Johnny Morgan ( writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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