One of Eastern Oregon’s most popular — and delicious — crops is back in season.
Famous Hermiston watermelons are nearing harvest as summer temperatures rise into the 90s and triple digits. High heat should help to ripen the fruit quickly, and growers anticipate they will begin picking in earnest between July 10-15.
“I think we’re pretty much on schedule,” said Patrick Walchli, with Walchli Farms. “Quality-wise, it’s by all indications looking pretty good, as far as the fruit set.”
Hermiston watermelons may be a niche crop in terms of overall acres, with about 750 total, but figure prominently in the city’s identity and civic pride. Driving north into town on Highway 395, the Hermiston logo emblazoned on the water tower features a watermelon backdrop along with the slogan, “Where Life is Sweet.”
And it isn’t just the locals who have a sweet tooth for Hermiston melons. Shoppers can find the specially branded fruit in Portland, Seattle and all across the West Coast. Some shipments have even gone as far as Texas and Georgia.
The secret lies in the region’s sandy soil and desert climate, which provides a perfect combination of hot, dry days and cool nights. Watermelons absorb heat during the day, which the plants metabolize into sugar for energy. Once they cool off at night, the respiration process slows down and all that sugar gets stored in the fruit, hence their exceptionally sweet flavor.
Walchli said this year has been a mostly typical growing season, compared to last year when planting got off to a slow start.
“Last season, we had a colder start and this year we had a more favorable May and end of April,” he said. “It’s hard to predict. Melons are very reactive to the weather, more so than some of the other crops.”
Scott Lukas, assistant professor of horticulture for Oregon State University, recently started a new research program at OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center with a partial focus on watermelons. He said growers have reported few issues with disease pressure, and for the most part the vines have been growing well.
“This has been a good season so far,” Lukas said. “I’ve heard the plants are looking good, and they are growing as they should.”
Hired by HAREC in 2016, Lukas has spent the last couple of years studying treatments for soil-borne fusarium and verticillium wilt diseases in watermelons. He plans to expand his program next year to include more irrigation trials using remote sensors to monitor soil moisture, and help farmers conserve water.
Precision agriculture and modern technology have led to increased yields, which in turn has helped to expand markets for Hermiston watermelons throughout the region, said Chris McNamee, a sales representative for Botsford & Goodfellow.
Based in Clackamas with a field office in Hermiston, Botsford & Goodfellow handles all marketing for Hermiston watermelons. McNamee said watermelon sales have increased every year for the last five years, and the Hermiston brand has become firmly established in major metro areas including Portland and Seattle.
“They’ve supported us really well,” McNamee said. “It’s allowed us to grow, which is great.”
In 2012, Florida, Georgia, California and Texas accounted for two-thirds of all watermelon production across the country. Though Hermiston may account for just a blip on the national watermelon radar, McNamee said they are undeniably popular in the Northwest.
“They get the sugar right, and they get them picked at the right time,” he said. “It stands out compared to the competition.”
Jack Bellinger, with Bellinger Farms, said he has already cut about a dozen watermelons off the vine and is excited about this year’s quality, which he attributes to a consistent growing season.
“People are getting excited to see them on their plates. And we are excited too,” Bellinger said. “The quality this year I think is going to be really exceptional.”