Local Watermelon

By Adam Calder, Produce Manager
Originally published in the July/Aug/Sept edition of the Field Journal. We expect the Crimson Sweet Watermelon in a few weeks! (Updated Aug 15)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Iowa State University Horticultural Research Station. Over the years, the horticulture department has used the research station to develop many different types of plants, including the Crimson Sweet watermelon. Nick Howell, Superintendent of the Research Station, had a lot to say about the history of the farm as well as what is happening there today when I visited out there a few weeks ago.

Originally the research farm was located where Kildee Hall is on the ISU campus. It moved out to State Street and then to its current location four miles east of Gilbert in 1967. Nick revealed the historical significance of the horticultural research that has been carried out since the founding days of Iowa State University.

“It (the horticulture research) came at a time when the state was very young,” Howell said. “They were bringing in materials from all over the world and they needed places to work on them. It had to be done in field conditions. The thing about growing stuff in field conditions is that it’s immediately accessible to the growers. The data, the results, all of those things, its applied research because you’re not controlling the variables, primarily the weather. So the data is usually very good. If you’re running trial data on watermelon for three years, chances are in those three years they’re going to be exposed to every type of weather conditions.”

Apples are a good example of this. When Iowa was first settled, apples, as we know them now, were not growing here. Apple varietals from Siberia, China and other locations were imported and researchers at ISU grafted those trees onto native apple rootstocks to aid in their survival. Today’s orchard industry benefited greatly from work completed at ISU.

Since its inception, the research station has helped develop numerous strawberry and rose varieties, as well as one especially tasty watermelon: The Crimson Sweet. The Crimson Sweet was developed by Charlie Hall early in his career and it caused quite a stir in the watermelon markets when it was first introduced in 1964.

Charlie Hall served as the chair of the Department of Horticulture. Nick told me that the Crimson Sweet was the first watermelon that was developed that was round and that had dark green stripes down the sides. Most of the watermelons up until that time were oblong and not very sweet. It took Hall ten years to develop the Crimson Sweet and he crossed three different varieties to produce a watermelon that was more wilt resistant, sweeter and able to fit in the refrigerator. The Crimson Sweet brought the size of the watermelon down to about 25 pounds making it easier to handle and also produced a sweeter watermelon. It is also famous for having smaller seeds. After its development at ISU, the Crimson Sweet became the basis for watermelon breeding across the world.

Over the last twelve years there have been approximately $1,000,000 worth of improvements made to the farm, increasing the capacity for more research. Nick said that a lot of the success of the farm is due to the ability to sell the products produced on the farm. The funds generated are used to supplement the farm’s budget and help with improvements.

If all goes well, Wheatsfield Cooperative will buy some of the historic Crimson Sweet watermelons to sell to our curious, hungry customers. Last spring and summer were far too wet for most melons to be healthy so we had no local watermelons. If the weather cooperates this year, then hopefully we will have a bumper crop of these striped, sugary, and round stars of the summer months.