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Melon producer does his own packing

By packing his own watermelons and eliminating the shed, producer Ron Livingston saves a penny a pound. And with thousands of melons, savings add up.

Livingston, who has 300 acres of watermelons south of La Grulla, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, cuts out the middle man by packing all his seeded varieties, which account for two-thirds of his acreage.

He eliminates a lot of handling in the packing stage, which is helpful since watermelon harvesting has to be done exclusively by hand.

Workers go into the field and, using knives, cut the ripe melons from the vine. They then turn the melons yellow-side up so workers harvesting the crop know which ones are off the vine and ready.

“We get four to five cuttings from a field,” says Livingston. Usually the second and third cuttings produce the largest number. “The fourth and fifth pretty much clean it up.”

The actual harvesting is labor intensive. Six men pick up the melons and toss them into a tractor-pulled trailer. From the field they are transported to an area on the farm where they are sorted, labeled and put into bins. After that, they are ready for shipping.

“We can load them all up for a penny a pound,” says Livingston. “It costs us twice as much for the seedless varieties because we don't pack these ourselves. There are too many different sizes, and we'd need too many belts and men to do the job.”

Seedless melons, of which he has 100 acres, cost more to grow also, which accounts for the higher price at the super market. Because the seedless variety has no male blooms, more labor is required since pollinators of seeded melons need to be planted next to the seedless. Besides these added costs, the seeds of seedless are twice as expensive as the traditional varieties.

Livingston grows all his melons under drip irrigation and plastic. “I'd hate to see what this field would look like without plastic. We never could have controlled the weeds.”

He has taken land that was thick with weeds and transformed it into fertile ground that produces mammoth sweet melons.

After melons get to be eight or nine pounds, they put on weight at the rate of about a pound a day. Jumbo seedless weigh in at about 18 pounds at maturity; whereas the seeded varieties can grow to be a whopping 30 pounds.

It is important to regularly test for sweetness. He opens a melon in the field and uses his tester, which shows a seedless variety racking up a “13” on the sweetness scale. “That's the ultimate in sweetness,” says Livingston. Even a “10” is acceptably sweet.

Livingston calls himself a “watermelon gypsy” since he leases acreage in east and west Texas as well as in the Rio Grande Valley, and, packing up his wife, children and equipment, pretty much “follows the crop.”

Livingston, who is 32 years old, has been working in the fields since he was eight and coming to south Texas for the last 10 years, most of the time working for others. This is only the fourth year that he has been farming for himself.

He is proud of this year's crop. “We're harvesting 18- to 20,000 pounds per acre. And we plan to be harvesting into June.” By using money-saving practices like doing his own packing, this farmer's watermelon crop should prove profitable this year.

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