HERMISTON - In a watermelon field, where the focus traditionally has been on thinking big, Jack Bellinger is thinking smaller.

Bellinger Farms has a new product this year, the Petite Sweet, a "personal size" watermelon about the size of a cantaloupe, weighing 4-6 pounds.

"We're picking the field today for the first time," Bellinger said Monday.

Smaller melons will bring a premium in stores, but they cost more to grow and the yield is lower, so the higher price is important to the grower, he said.

Chris McNamee, a produce marketer at Botsford & Goodfellow Inc. in Clackamas, said the smaller melons meet consumer demand, especially in urban areas. The minimelons appeal especially to singles, who don't want to buy a large melon just to have part of it spoil before they can eat it.

"The chains are very interested in a minimelon that actually was grown in Hermiston," McNamee said, "so I'm interested to see how we do."

Bellinger Farms lit the fuse on watermelon sales the Fourth of July, and two weeks later, activity is skyrocketing.

Bellinger barely had time to talk Monday as workers in his packing shed scurried about filling cardboard bins with 700-750 pounds of melons and filling trucks with two-bin pallets.

Bellinger Farms has more than 50 on the payroll, including two watermelon crews and one cantaloupe crew, he said. His foreman, Jose Perez, marked 25 years at the farm this year. He's directing harvesting on 150 acres of watermelons and 35 acres of cantaloupes.

The harvest includes red, yellow and orange seedless watermelons, plus the traditional red-seeded variety. About 85 percent of the farm's orders are for seedless varieties, Bellinger said. More consumers are buying seedless melons and smaller melons, he added.

The farm also grows Eclipse cantaloupes, an eastern variety.

"These are picked fresh off the vine and we try to get them in the stores as fast as possible," Bellinger said as he cut into a juicy cantaloupe and carved out a mouthful.

During hot weather early in the harvest, most melons make it to market within two to four days. Consumers should be pleased with this year's crop, he said, because the melons' sugar content is high. The inclement weather in June is responsible for the increased sweetness, he said, but also for the slow start to the harvest.

"We've been skimming for the past week to get the melons off," he said, meaning that harvesters have been cutting selectively to take ripe melons only.

Early deliveries went to Bellinger Farms' own retail stores and other regional fruit stands and peddlers, Bellinger said. Now the workers are filling orders for major supermarkets.

Bellinger Farms markets watermelons in four sizes, ranging from about 55 small watermelons per bin to about 30 large ones. The farm generally ships larger melons later in the season.

Retailers are more interested in standard watermelon counts per bin because they want to sell per melon rather than per pound, McNamee said.

"People are really excited to get the Hermiston melons in their stores," Bellinger said. "Right now, they're just flying off the shelves."

Botsford and Goodfellow has a lot to do with how Bellinger Farms and other Hermiston melon growers succeed. It places billboards promoting Hermiston watermelons in urban areas and organizes Hermiston watermelon displays at county fairs throughout its territory.

"We focus more on the consumers to drive the chain stores to ask for Hermiston watermelons," he said.

Bellinger Farms' goal is 40 tons per acre, or a total of 6,000 tons of all watermelons this year.

"We can easily grow 40 tons per acre," Bellinger said. "Marketing that many can be challenging."

That challenge occurs especially later in the summer when the melons begin to ripen at once.

In an effort to prevent that, Bellinger's crew plants staggered crops beginning in early April and continuing through mid-May. Bellinger starts some plants in a greenhouse; his crew plants others under rows of plastic that gather the sun's warmth and keep it around the tender young plants.

Bellinger expects to keep his melon crew busy through September.

"We usually sell a few in the first of October," he said. "It's a lot slower after Labor Day."

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