Within 18 hours of being plucked off the vine, watermelons – by the truckload – arrive in produce bins at Stop & Shop, Shaw's and Whole Foods markets around Boston. They journey more than 400 miles up the coast from fields in Maryland and Delaware since few are grown in New England.
This month, there'll be lots of north-bound loads of melons carrying the Mar-Delicious label. Delmarva produces about 20% of the nation's watermelon harvest. And the growing season is short – from July to September.
Those watermelons come from farms of about 50 independent family farmers in Delaware and Maryland – not large corporate production fields, says Jay Rider, a grower from Laurel, Del., and president of the Mar-Del Watermelon Association. And the growers are getting extra help via a Mar-Delicious advertising campaign on New England radio and print publications, supported by Maryland and Delaware Departments of Agriculture and a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant.
Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island produce few watermelons. Just 49 acres were recorded in the last Census of Agriculture. Most come from other states. Maryland and Delaware are closest and able to get their products to New England in the shortest time – 12 to 18 hours after picking.
"We are proud of our product and our work," adds Mark Collins, a Mid-Atlantic Master Farmer, also from Laurel, and immediate past president of the association. "It takes a lot of time and hard effort in advance. And it's really a family affair, with our sons and daughters growing up in the business."
"The New England market, especially Boston, is an important one for our growers and brokers," says Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee. "This is a good opportunity to support our family farmers and build the regional brand."
With production booming, the two states need to expand into out-of-state markets to avoid a watermelon surplus. With 4,900 acres of watermelons, the two states are approaching 200 million pounds a year. The hot, dry weather this summer has helped the watermelon harvest. Consumption in the New England market is estimated at 100 million pounds.