Our minivan speeds north on I-75 in June. School just let out for the summer and like every summer of our childhood, we are counting the exits… 99… 100… 101. My brother and I cheer as Mom pulls off the Interstate and into the parking lot of the motel. This is home for the next week or two.
The name has changed five times, but it is always home. We hop into our swimsuits while Mom unpacks the car. The days will be filled with swimming, jumping on beds, Shoney’s breakfast buffet, running the A/C window unit at full blast, and daily trips to the packinghouse.
My father is a watermelon farmer.
My brother and I will make extra money moving rotting melons, placing stickers, or filing papers. We’ll use it to buy an ice cream or other treat from any one of the fast-food joints that speckle the main drag in Cordele, Georgia. We’ll eat fresh watermelon cut right in the field and practice cross-stitching to pass the time. Then, we’ll move on. Summers are for Interstates and motels, fast-food burgers and bear hugs from my dad when we get to see him. It’s a strange life, I suppose, but it’s the only life we know.
My father, Al Wroten, is nearly 70 years old now and has been chasing melons since he was 17. “It’s the worst kind of fun,” he tells me. “You dread it until it starts and then you get swept up in it. It’s exhausting and stressful… and you can’t wait to do it again.”
Watermelon is a fast-paced crop. Just 90 days after the plants go into the ground, the fruit is ready for harvest. It requires well-drained, sandy soil and has a short weather window, not too wet or dry or hot or cold. If you want to be a watermelon farmer, you have to chase the weather.
Starting in the south and moving north, a farmer can prolong the season and make it profitable. It’s a whirlwind, a high-stakes farming race, and we can always feel the nervous anticipation as the season approaches.
It’s usually a cold, dark morning in January when the first watermelon plants go into the ground in South Florida. My father, my brother, and my husband will be shivering and sipping coffee in the field as they make final logistical plans. They have 1,000 acres of leased land to plant in less than four weeks. Then, if the weather is agreeable and the timing is just right, they’ll transform this sugar cane field into a watermelon patch.
The process will repeat itself over and over for the next 10 weeks, “resting” fields with watermelon plants. Watermelon is the perfect crop to rotate through an off season of sugar cane or to drop between strawberries as the berry season wanes. The crew will travel from tiny Moore Haven by Lake Okeechobee, to Plant City and Lakeland; across the state line into Cordele and Abbeville, Georgia; and finally north to Vincennes, Indiana. Then, it’s back to the bottom to begin again for the harvest. The rest of the family will follow.
Farming has changed a lot in 50 years. When my father started, many farmers planted 60 to 80 acres with melons. Now they plant hundreds of acres, occasionally topping a thousand. In the past, young men carefully stacked melons into semi trucks by hand, finishing four or five truckloads on a good day. Now, the melons are packed into bins, and forklifts can quickly place them into 40 trucks in a day.
Labor has always been the biggest issue for watermelon farmers. It is hard work at the hottest time of year. The H-2A temporary agricultural program helps to bring foreign workers to the U.S. to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural work and this program has been a lifesaver.
Most importantly, watermelons were a novelty item decades ago, widely available only in the summer months. Families waited impatiently for the first fruits of the season. Watermelon is now imported year round, which is a challenge for domestic farmers. Today, only a handful of farmers make their living planting watermelons, and just being a farmer isn’t enough to get your fruit in front of the consumer—our family is involved in the entire supply chain. What started as a small operation with my father and grandfather has become the four-pronged entity it is today, with the farming, harvesting and packing, shipping and sales all handled under one corporation.
Despite all these changes, my family still walks the vine. Farming is in our blood. My children and my nephews visit the same obscure rural towns of my childhood. They hug their dads goodbye and count the days until the next visit. Our garages are lined with melons that we give in gratitude to the friends who help us while the men are gone. It’s a small gift from a strange life, I suppose. But it’s still the only life we know.