« 4-H hay bales adorn 2006 State Fair | Main | Blalock inducted into National 4-H Hall of Fame »

November 06, 2006

Sweet success: Bogue Sound watermelons

Bogue Sound watermelons
Bogue Sound watermelon. (Photos by Suzanne Stanard)

Billy Guthrie’s family has been growing watermelons in Bogue, North Carolina, for more than a century. They’re sweet as pure cane, juicy and ruby red.

So, what’s the secret to growing such tasty watermelons?

“I’m not going to tell you, or I’d have to kill you,” Guthrie says, smiling broadly.

Perhaps it’s the sandy soil, the sun-kissed coastal climate or maybe a little extra TLC. Whatever the secret to growing the melons, there are few things finer than sinking your teeth into a juicy wedge on a hot summer day.

Soon, Guthrie hopes, people across North Carolina, and throughout the country for that matter, will be able to experience Bogue Sound watermelons.

With support from North Carolina Cooperative Extension, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Economic Development Council of Carteret County, Guthrie has launched the Bogue Sound Watermelon Growers Association and serves as its current president. The cooperative is designed to promote Bogue Sound watermelons, just as Vidalia, Ga., did with its famous onion.

“My great-grandfather grew watermelons, and a lot of these growers’ great-grandfathers grew watermelons,” Guthrie says. “With the tobacco buyout, a lot of folks are looking for new things to grow. If we could capitalize on these melons, it’d be a great opportunity for all of us.”

Billie Guthrie and Ray Harris
Bogue Sound watermelon grower Billie Guthrie talks in the field with Ray Harris, Extension director in Carteret County.

Bogue Sound watermelons have been popular along the east coast for more than 100 years, he says, shipped aboard steamers to states like New York and New Jersey.

Ray Harris, Cooperative Extension director in Carteret County, says he still fields calls from northern states asking for Bogue Sound watermelon seeds. Bogue Sound watermelons aren’t actually a variety, Harris explains. While the melons are common varieties like Royal Sweet or Crimson Sweet, he says, they emerge from Bogue Sound soils with an extra-sweet taste that makes them distinctive.

Harris and the Cooperative Extension office in Carteret County have played a key role in getting this effort off the ground, especially in marketing the melons. They’ll also assist the farmers with production and disease control.

To qualify to join the co-op, growers must use land that drains directly or indirectly into the Bogue Sound, Harris says. This includes areas from Swansboro to Morehead City. Right now, there are 20 growers in the co-op. Harris and Guthrie hope for more.

“We’re trying to help save the family farm,” Harris says. “We’ve been looking for an alternative, value-added, product to replace tobacco. As this progresses, I see more growers coming into the co-op.”

The state granted a trademark for the Bogue Sound watermelon in early 2006. Thanks to a $30,000 Golden LEAF value-added grant, the association has produced stickers, flyers, hats, t-shirts and other marketing materials that bear the new Bogue Sound watermelon logo.

“I think it’s going great,” Guthrie says. “There’s just so much to do. But, if they can do it with the Vidalia onion, we can do it here.”

According to Harris, the area had about 19 tobacco growers before the buyout in October 2004. Now, there are two.

Among those who have made the switch from tobacco to other crops are David and Sarah Winberry in Cedar Point, N.C. Just down the road from Guthrie’s farm, the Winberry family grows Bogue Sound watermelons, as well as other fruit and vegetable crops.

As members of the Bogue Sound Watermelon Growers Association, they’re working with Guthrie and other neighboring farmers to increase production – and awareness – of the melons. It certainly helps that the area’s average population spikes from 62,000 to about 375,000 during the summer months.

“People assume that I’ll dread summer and crowds, but I love it,” says Sarah Winberry amidst the throng of July 4 travelers who’ve pulled off the road to buy Bogue Sound watermelons, tomatoes and other summer delicacies offered at the family’s produce stand. “It’s my passion!”

For Guthrie, the success of the Bogue Sound Watermelon Growers Association comes down to one thing: strong partnerships.

“I’ve known Ray for a long, long time, and he’s helped us tremendously,” Guthrie says. “Without him, we’d be groping in the dark. It’s critical that we all work together.”

-S. Stanard


Posted by Suzanne at November 6, 2006 03:58 PM