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February 17, 2009

Strong demand for Bogue Sound watermelons

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Bogue Sound watermelon (Photos by Suzanne Stanard)

Bogue Sound watermelon production is taking off faster than the juice that rolls down your chin when you bite into a slice.

In 2007, the total number of Bogue Sound watermelons produced rose by 35 percent over the previous year. The melons are now available, for the first time, in major grocery chains throughout North Carolina and across the United States. And the Bogue Sound Watermelon Growers' Association, a co-op formed just three years ago, recently won $400,000 in grants to fund a new storage and distribution facility.

Times are good, says Carteret County farmer and co-op president Billy Guthrie, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

"Demand is strong and our yield per acre is up," he says. "We’ve even begun shipping into Canada. But in order to become even more successful, we need more farmers to get involved."

Any watermelon grower whose land drains directly or indirectly into North Carolina’s Bogue Sound is eligible to join the co-op, which has 20 members right now.

"Big and small farmers are working with each other ... everybody helps," says Ray Harris, Cooperative Extension director in Carteret County. "This effort has pulled farmers together more than anything I’ve seen in this area in the last 35 years."

Sherry Guthrie, Billy wife and business partner, agrees. "The number of farms that went under in 2006 is astounding," she says. "We want to keep families on the farm, and we also want to get more young farmers involved."

Terri and Jeff Collins with Ray Harris
Extension's Ray Harris (right) touches base with watermelon growers Terri and Jeff Collins.

One such farmer is Jeff Collins. He and his wife Terri run a 25-acre family farm that produces tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, sod, and of course, Bogue Sound watermelons. Collins says they made more money off watermelons last year than on tobacco and plan to expand their watermelon acreage next year.

"We've got a good product," he says. "Everybody wants it. We've sent them all the way to Quebec and a lot to New York. It's the best melon you'll taste."

A warehouse on the Collinses farm has served as a collection and distribution center for Bogue Sound Watermelon co-op farmers to use. While they won't need to take advantage of the new facility being developed, the couple believes it could be a boon for the co-op.

"We've been friends with Billy Guthrie for a long time, and we've talked about this for four to five years," Terri Collins says. "It's a good feeling to see it working."

Two grants – $300,000 from the North Carolina Rural Center and $100,000 from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services – will fund the new facility. It will meet a critical need by providing farmers with a central location to sort, grade and store the increasing volume of melons. With refrigeration and ice-making equipment, Harris says, the facility eventually could be used to process other types of produce.

At press time, the cooperative was scouting locations for the new facility. Harris says they hope to begin operation by summer.

Harris has played a key role in establishing the cooperative and fueling the growth of the Bogue Sound Watermelon enterprise, connecting Guthrie and the co-op with opportunities for marketing, distribution and grant funding.

"We've had some bumps in the road and growing pains, but that's to be expected," Harris says.

Guthrie says the concept for the organization is simple. "Once you've established that reputation of integrity and quality, and you remain constant, you'll grow."

With a product that literally tips the sweetness scales, the Bogue Sound Watermelon Growers Association has nowhere to go but up.

--S. Stanard

Posted by Suzanne at February 17, 2009 02:17 PM