- Fruits: melons
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
As the local foods movement gains momentum, consumers are seeking an ever-expanding array of locally and organically produced foods. While the local marketing of organic vegetables is long established in Maine, and conventionally produced apples, strawberries, and blueberries are readily available in season, organically produced Maine fruit is relatively hard to find. A search of MOFGA’s directory of certified organic farms shows that 50-100% more organic farms are growing common vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, beans, and carrots than are growing melons. Very few of the farms that are growing melons grow them in significant quantity; according to the MOFGA office, only five certified farms planned to grow at least one thousand row feet of melons in 2009. Anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests that lack of demand is not the problem. Produce managers at food co-ops report that customers are very excited by offerings of local fruit, and when farming friends with a vegetable CSA recently issued an end-of-year survey to their shareholders the most common suggestions was “more fruit!” Melon acreage is limited primarily because many varieties are unsuitable for our cool climate and short season. However, there is reason to believe that certain varieties – especially heirloom varieties bred over decades to mature under cool-weather, short-season conditions – will perform at a profitable level in our climate. I propose to perform a two-year trial of twenty varieties of short-season open-pollinated melons under intensive organic conditions – “intensive” meaning the melons will be provided with all usual and reasonable assistance necessary to perform their best in a cool climate (this study may form a good basis for later research into varieties that will produce well under lower-cost, lower-input systems). Melons will be evaluated on a number of parameters to determine which varieties will perform best for organic farmers in Maine and other cold areas of the northeast. Melons offer an underutilized economic opportunity for organic farmers in Maine and other northern regions. Identifying which varieties perform well in this area under organic management will expand the palate of the “locavore”, entice new customers to Maine farmstands, and open a lucrative market for Maine’s organic farmers. Moreover, because melons are a high value and relatively labor intensive crop in this area (requiring labor to deal with the plastic mulching and row covers), an increase in melon acreage has the potential to increase on-farm employment. Focusing the pool on open-pollinated varieties will leave the door open for on-farm selection for improved performance under organic and northern conditions; many consumers are also interested in the history and novelty of open-pollinated heirloom varieties. With good marketing, a tasty heirloom variety can almost become its own category in the produce case – perhaps “Million Dollar” will prove to be the “Brandywine” of the melon world. Growing melons may not seem to be an “innovative” practice of the sort sought by SARE, but I believe that it really does meet the criterion of innovation. Melons are innovative as a commercial crop in the Northeast, and a combination of circumstances (melons’ familiarity as a popular food, their comparative rarity – and yet potential feasibility – on Northeast farms, and accelerating consumer interest in locally grown foods) leads me to believe that melons could be a new source of good profits here if growers are armed with enough information. Also, most of the varieties I have selected are not currently available in commercial quantities. This trial could form the basis for selecting “new” heirloom varieties to introduce to the commercial seed trade. MOFGA offers many opportunities for the dissemination of information from projects like these, and I will offer to do at least two of the following: perform a presentation at the Common Ground Country Fair (annual attendance of 40-60,000 fairgoers, including many farmers), perform a presentation at the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference (annual fall conference catering to organic farmers), perform a presentation on MOFGA day at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, or publish results in the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener (circulation of 10,000, including most MOFGA-certified farmers, plus many articles published on the MOFGA website). Presentations will include a Powerpoint slide series where possible (computer use is not always possible at the Common Ground) and a one page handout summarizing results. I will also offer an article detailing my results to the NOFA chapters to publish in their newsletters or on their websites. In addition, both technical advisors to this project are extension agents (Eric Sideman for MOFGA and Mark Hutton for the University of Maine), who can share information from the project with their colleagues in other parts of the region and add to their knowledge base in advising their clientele. Finally, we will share the results with Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco, two Maine seed companies that cater to many Maine farmers both organic and conventional. Fedco, especially, also contracts with Maine farmers to grow seed for them, and may be interested in adding our more successful varieties to their collection of locally grown varieties.
Project objectives from proposal:
Twenty varieties of open-pollinated melons will be planted on a plot of Masardis fine sandy loam that has been under cultivation for several years and has been recently limed and fertilized. Two hybrid varieties that have done well in the University of Maine trials will also be included for comparison. A fertile, light-textured soil is typically recommended for melons, especially in colder climates. While Masardis soils have naturally low fertility, the drainage is optimal and we have spent several years building organic matter and soil nutrient levels at this site. Recent soil tests indicate the success of our soil-building program.
Melon varieties have been selected based on their advertised days-to-maturity and/or a history of performing well in the northeast. All open-pollinated varieties advertised by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Bountiful Gardens, and Sand Hill Preservation as maturing in eighty or fewer days gained automatic entrance to the trial. A few additional varieties were chosen with unspecified maturity but historical roots in cold areas. Finally, a few varieties with longer maturation but other characteristics of commercial interest (italicized in the table) were included. The table below lists the varieties I intend to use in the trial. Actual varieties used in the trial may depend on seed availability, but will be chosen primarily for advertisement of short season or good cool-weather performance.
In mid-April, or as soon as the soil may be worked, the site will be rotovated and a locally produced, MOFGA-approved, guaranteed-analysis, manure-based compost (Living Acres 1.5-6-2) will be incorporated at 150#/1000 square feet and 500 linear feet of infrared-transmitting plastic mulch will be installed in rows 6’ on center.
In early May, melon seeds will be started in 2.33” round Dot pots (OMRI-listed peat pots) filled with a blend of 80% Komplete NP Germination Mix (a locally produced MOFGA-approved potting soil) and 20% worm castings. Three seeds per pot will be planted in eighteen pots per variety (pots will be individually labeled with variety name on a wooden plant label). Three weeks after planting, the plants will be thinned to the strongest seedling in each pot.
In mid-June, the melons will be transplanted in their pots (to avoid root disturbance and consequent setback of the seedlings), with their labels, through the plastic mulch. Three five-plant blocks of each variety will be planted in random order. Each transplant will be watered in with one pint of a 64:1 dilution of a fish-kelp emulsion. Wire hoops will be erected three feet apart along each row and covered with Agribon Ag-19 row cover.
The row covers will be lifted on a biweekly basis to spray with a foliar feeding solution (128:1 dilution of fish-kelp emulsion), for a total of six foliar feedings. Covers will also be removed in very hot weather (over 95 degrees) to prevent heat stress. Once the first female bud opens, row covers will be removed. Row covers will be replaced when pollination is complete. No supplemental irrigation will be provided; in our pumpkin crops we have always found that plastic mulch prevents evaporative loss and renders irrigation unnecessary in our climate. Excessive water can also result in melons with poor eating quality (low sugar content and watery texture).
Harvest will begin with the first ripe fruit and end when vines are killed by frost. The following records will be kept:
• Total Yield, Total Marketable Yield and Percent Marketable. Yields of ripe melons will be recorded separately for each five-plant block. Melons that are unmarketable (split, rotted, moldy, excessively lopsided or otherwise ugly) will be deducted from the total yield to give the marketable yield.
• Date of First Marketable Melon from each variety. This will inform growers how early in the season melons from a particular variety may be sold, or (in the case of later varieties) how likely a variety will be frost-killed before producing a crop.
• Response to Disease & Insect Pressure. While the row covers should prevent heavy insect infestation, we cannot expect perfection. Where appropriate, notes will be kept on varieties’ response to negative pressures (e.g. percent of leaves affected by powdery mildew) in each block.
• Brix. Three melons from each block will be randomly selected and tested for sugar content. I have requested funds for a refractometer for this purpose. We do not use a refractometer for our ordinary farming activities and will need to purchase one for the project. Since sugar content is the most precisely quantifiable measurement of eating quality in fruit, the information provided by the refractometer would be well worth its modest cost.
• Consumer Ratings. While sugar content is central, it is not the only measure of eating quality. Depth of flavor and pleasant texture are also important but less easy to measure empirically. We will cut up randomly selected melons and offer them for blind tastings at farmers markets or other appropriate venues, asking consumers to rate each melon on a scale of 1-10 for eating quality.
• Storage Capacity. It is of economic interest to the farmer to be able to store a crop in good condition; this provides extra time to find a market for the produce and also extends the period over which the crop can deliver good cash flow. Therefore, two melons from each variety will be randomly selected and stored in a 35-40 degree cooler. They will be evaluated on a weekly basis for exterior soundness (firm rind, lack of mold/waterspots/softening, good coloration) and melons that are no longer in marketable condition will be discarded. The last three remaining melon varieties will be opened and evaluated for their eating quality after storage.
The entire experiment will be repeated in 2011, in an attempt to reduce the effect of weather patterns on the results.