Sacramento Valley heat produced early, short watermelon season

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013 - 8:07 am

Sink your teeth into the fruit that signifies hot Sacramento summers. Like a fireworks fountain on Independence Day, the arrival of watermelon season also marks early July.

Scour the local farmers market or grocery produce section and you'll find watermelons in all kinds of forms: Watermelons with black rinds, juicy watermelons with yellow flesh, watermelons with or without seeds, personal-size watermelons.

Managing this year's watermelon crop has been tricky for local growers. While the harvest typically begins around July 4, an early summer heat wave prompted watermelon picking in mid-June. The heart of the local watermelon season generally lasts until Labor Day, but given the early harvest, expect shortages later in the season for fresh local watermelon.

That's to say, start savoring local watermelon while you can, and expect the average price to run about $5.25 for a whole melon.

"The quality's been tremendous," said David Vierra of Vierra Farms, who grows watermelon in West Sacramento. "Watermelons like heat, and they're much riper and have a higher sugar content because it's been hot. But it will be a short season. You won't see two (watermelons) for $5 this year."

A perfectly juicy and sweet watermelon can be especially challenging to grow, whether it comes from a backyard garden or local farm. Watermelons are especially prone to diseases and need very specific soil and weather conditions to thrive. Watermelons require well-drained, warm and sandy soils and plenty of hot weather to ripen with an abundance of sweet sugar.

Seedless watermelons are especially delicate. They must be started in a nursery and then transplanted into the ground. Pollination becomes especially important since a seedless watermelon is inherently sterile.

"A lot can go wrong," said Vierra. "The seed doesn't have a lot of vigor, so that's why they start in the nursery. When they start vining in the ground it becomes easier."

Vierra, who sells his watermelons to Nugget Market and also vends them through local farmers markets and his own fruit stand, says it's rare to find seeded watermelons at a grocery store. On the flip side, consumer demand goes overwhelmingly toward seeded watermelons at farmers markets.

"Seedless is about 95 percent of the (overall) market," said Vierra. "But there's a distinct difference in flavor. The seedless are crispier but not as flavorful. We sell twice as many (seeded) watermelons at the farmers markets."

Michael Marks, who's popularly known as known as "Your Produce Man" on Channel 13 (KOVR) and Channel 31 (KMAX), has noticed seedless watermelons becoming sweeter over time. They've sometimes had a reputation as tasting like glorified cucumber but are getting closer to their seeded counterparts.

"They've come a long way in 30 years with putting flavors and sugar back in them," said Marks. "But seeded always has more flavor. When you have a mature seed, that will put out more flavor and sugar. A seedless has seeds, but they're immature seeds."

The size of watermelons has also become scaled down. A typical whole watermelon weighs between 12 and 15 pounds, compared with the behemoth 25-pound-and-up seeded watermelons of the past. Consumers are increasingly looking for watermelons that are convenient enough to fit in a grocery bag.

"Those giant melons from days of yore, nobody has time for that anymore," said Vierra. "Everything's geared toward the personal-size melon. Family sizes are smaller and people want something they can fit in the fridge."

No matter which watermelon suits your taste buds or kitchen space, shopping for a perfectly ripe whole melon sometimes feels like an exercise in trial and error.

But fear not, we've got a wad of watermelon shopping tips for you. Along with the guidance in our accompanying story, Marks has focused recent TV segments on watermelon shopping. Among his extra juicy tips:

• Look for some butter-yellow on the watermelon's belly: "If the belly is white, that's a sign of immaturity. You want some yellow, but turning the color of butter is really good."

• A black ring around the stem means the watermelon is sweet: "It's like that ring around the collar. That's black crystallized sugar. What that tells me is when the watermelon was harvested there was a lot of sugar content in the melon and some sugar oozed out. Sometimes you'll find little beads of black sugar on the watermelon itself. That's a good sign."

• Give a smaller watermelon a squeeze test: "If it's a personal watermelon, hold it like a basketball and squeeze. It needs to be rock hard."

• Be wary of watermelons kept in outdoor displays: "I've seen time and again these displays outside a store and the sun's beating down on it. Oh my goodness, I've seen some that have been in there for two days."

• Plan on eating the watermelon quickly: "They don't ripen (after they've been picked) like some other melons, so cut it up right away. If you have kids and grandkids who are coming home from soccer practice, if it's already cut up there's more likelihood they will eat a lot of it."

• Don't settle for substandard watermelon: "If it's not good, don't be afraid to take it back to the store. I don't know of any store that's not willing to give you another one."

Recipe: Watermelon salad with basil and bacon
Recipe: Watermelon Bellini
Recipe: Grilled butterflied duck with spicy watermelon glaze
Recipe: Cucumber, watermelon and mango salad
Recipe: Sweet watermelon rind relish
Recipe: Hungry Cat's tomato and watermelon salad

Call The Bee's Chris Macias (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

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