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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

New melons introduced to Southeast Missouri

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Taste-testing the gallia melon are, from left: Kylie Trusty, Meghan Nelson and Jasmine Adams.
SIKESTON - Avenowat. Sakar palak. Zarrcockin. The words are more than a mouthful.

But once you have a slice of an avenowat, sakar palak or zarrocockin melon, you will want a mouth full again and again.

That's fine with Steve Welker, coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Bootheel Resource Conservation and Development Inc. Welker wants consumers to develop a taste for these and other exotic melons because that will mean a new industry for Bootheel farmers.

Welker first came across the melons during a visit to Uzbekistan. Working as a volunteer to provide agri-business advice to the emerging economy, Welker discovered he had something to learn from the Uzbek farmers.

"I really got to enjoying these melons a few years ago," recalled Welker, who even admitted to planning his return visits around the peak of Uzbekistan melon season. "Each has a different taste and texture. Avenowat is real sweet. Sakar palak (my favorite) has a taste that is totally different."

When he moved to Southeast Missouri, Welker realized Uzbekistan is located on the same latitude as Southeast Missouri. He found the soils, the seasons and even their crops are similar.

But while Southeast Missouri farmers grow cantaloupes and watermelons, their counterparts a half world away are producing some 70 species of melons. The country, formerly part of the Soviet Union and located in Central Asia, provides 60 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the former Soviet Union.

And while the Uzbekistan farmers or their families sell their melons in the local markets, proudly offering a taste to passers-by to entice them to buy, Southeast Missouri farmers typically move their melons through brokers.

"The No. 1 problem is melon profitability," said Welker about local production. By expanding Southeast Missouri farmers' offerings to increase demand and marketing to burgeoning foreign populations, the Resource and Conservation consultant determined it could become a much more profitable business.

In 2000, RC&D sought a grant through the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service/International Cooperation and Development. Welker received $25,000 for a three-year project.

Next he recruited area farmers to grow the exotic melons. To make the project more enticing, Welker provided the seeds and even paid some of the production costs.

"Last year was mediocre at best," he said about their crop. So Welker returned to Uzbekistan to take a closer look at their melon operation. He came back with some suggestions - planting on silt-loam soil rather than sandy ground and changing irrigation techniques - to make the 2002 crop better.

It worked. Welker carries a cooler with him, offering tastes of the 2002 crop. "It just takes one taste to get people interested."

He said Wal-Mart has shown interest in local production of melons popular on the West Coast, such as Gallia, Dorado, Canary and Santa Claus melons. Shipping costs (melons are 90 percent water) make the melons too high priced to bring from California and Arizona where they are currently grown.

He has traveled to Chicago where he found a growing Russian community yearning for a taste of home. "Those guys would pay any price I would put on them because they grew up with the melons and can't get them here. They want to order them right now," said Welker about the Chicago contacts. "There is a lot of opportunity to go direct to buyers. They can make money and the growers make money."

Sam Story of Sikeston sees the melons as a money maker. After working with a small research plot in Mississippi County and watching the reaction of friends and others to the melons, he plans a 2003 crop twenty-times bigger.

"The reaction has been very good. People really like them," said Story. "They are unique, exotic and most people haven't tasted anything like them before."

Story, who said he has never grown melons commercially, has found the crop a little more labor intensive and had to battle bugs and rain to raise his crop this year. The growing season, he noted, is similar to local melons, about 90 days.

"It has been interesting," he said, pointing out his crop includes seven varieties, each featuring different tastes and colors.

Using what he has learned from his own plot and from Welker, Story is looking at the melons as a commercial venture in 2003. "That is the direction we are trying to move. The reception we have had is very good and very encouraging. Once you try them you will want them, I guarantee."

Welker sees other opportunities in the growth of the local melon market. This fall he is planning a visit to Uzbekistan with a team of technical personnel and local producers to evaluate melon varieties and study harvesting and storage techniques.

The Uzbek producers and agriculture officials look at this as an opportunity to expand their markets too. Already they have donated seed to the local project in hopes of expanding into the seed import business into the United States.

For more information about the project, contact Welker at 573-624-4939, extension 6.