COLLEGE STATION — Watermelon growers are within spittin’ distance of switching to a seedless version that’s sure to boost U. S. consumption, even through the fall and winter months.
Several varieties of seedless watermelons already on the market are increasing in popularity because, researchers say, they’re smaller and better fit today’s consumer needs.
“Imagine someone dragging a 35-pound watermelon to a 15th floor apartment in Chicago,” said Dr. Frank Dainello, Texas Agricultural Extension Service horticulturist.
Lugging melons is less a problem with seedless varieties which tend to mature at a mere eight to 10 pounds, he explained.
Plus, “it’s socially unacceptable to spit seeds in public,” said Dainello, hence the need for the seedless fruit on ever- popular restaurant salad bars.
“We’ve seen the fresh market trend increase in market share from 11 percent to 33 percent currently,” said Susan O’Reilly, spokesperson for the National Watermelon Promotion Board in Orlando, Fla. “It hasn’t overtaken the industry yet, but it is definitely on the increase. We think that’s because it is convenient.”
She said seedless watermelons are a new trend for liquid replenishers at athletic events and also are becoming popular in hospitals and institutions more interested in their healthy aspects. Watermelons are low in sodium and a good source of vitamins A and C and potassium. An average watermelon is about 92 percent water and 8 percent natural sugar. An average slice (4 inches by 8 inches) contains about 120 calories.
“Hospitals and nursing homes like to have the seedless melons because some people can barely eat to start with, and they sure can’t spit seeds,” said Ron Earhart, a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station research associate who has field-tested varieties for at least five years near Overton.
Until the 1950s, scientists thought seedless melons were impossible, thinking that, without seeds, the next generation can’t be planted.
“Seedless watermelons are like mules — the male part of the plant is sterile, so the crop won’t self pollinate,” Earhart explained. Farmers, therefore, have to plant a regular watermelon plant every fifth place in the row to help pollinate. Honey bees stationed around the field also help boost yields, he said.
Even though scientists discovered ways to produce seedless melons, farmers until now were slow to adopt the new crop. It was more costly and more labor intensive to transplant seedlings than to sow seeds.
Up until about 10 years ago, watermelons that were nearly the size of a washtub would adorn summer holiday outings or family reunions. The larger melons were less expensive and would feed a large family. However, the average sized family has shrunk, from almost four people in the 1940s to about three persons today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That led researchers to replant the notion of seedless watermelons among producers.
The smaller melon fits in a refrigerator and can be eaten more quickly to avoid waste. And, consumers have been willing to pay $1 to $2 more for a seedless melon that is about one-half the size of a regular one, Dainello noted.
Five years of testing through the Experiment Station has yielded promising results on almost 20 seedless varieties, many of which already are being grown commercially, according to Earhart. And, machines are now available to plant the crop, thus cutting the need for expensive labor.
Dr. Marty Baker, Extension horticulturist in Overton, estimated that seedless watermelons now claim from 10 percent to 18 percent of the Texas market. He said growers can earn about twice the price per pound for seedless as for regular watermelons.
None of the varieties tested at the Overton research farm produced less than 26,000 pounds per acre, according to Dainello. The top yielding variety netted almost 65,000 pounds per acre.
Any place that can grow regular melons can produce the seedless varieties, Baker said, and Mexican farmers are producing lots of them to fill the markets during winter months.
“It’s my opinion that within the next 10 years, seedless types probably will be the only watermelon there is,” Earhart said.