Migrant pickers roil watermelon capital

As Americans sit down to July Fourth picnics, the melons come ripe with controversy. Longtime farmers feel outflanked by newcomers.

Randy Myers is a second-generation watermelon grower, and he's got the forearms to prove it.

He and his brother Ronnie pull countless melons from the brick-red soil of their 120 acres in Turner County, and they can always be found at the same place this time of year: under the tin roofs of the State Farmers Market here in Cordele, Ga. - the New York Stock Exchange of watermelon sales in the United States

But as he sits atop his pickup on the Saturday night before the Fourth of July, waiting for buyers while thunderheads gather above and flies buzz around bits of crimson fruit, Mr. Myers is pessimistic. Fewer buyers have come this season, and an influx of late-season melons from Florida is pushing the prices down to as low as 5 cents a pound.

His worries are shared by many of the local growers here, watching helplessly as their decades-long melon monopoly vanishes. Cordele is to watermelon what Maine is to lobster or San Francisco to sourdough bread. Sure, Florida growers may open the melon season, and Virginia farmers close it near Labor Day. But nearly every Easterner who picks up a watermelon at a July Fourth picnic bites into a fruit that came through this town of 11,000 some 200 miles south of Atlanta.

Now, after three years of bad weather and ripening competition from Mexican pickers and big packing houses, many of the local farmers who built this area into the self-proclaimed watermelon capital of the world are starting to feel like guests at their own Independence Day party.

Though the town still holds a month-long festival to celebrate the watermelon's preeminence, complete with fish-fries and seed spitting contests, many farmers are finding it's no longer even worthwhile to attend. And that's difficult to take in a town where every other person wears a watermelon patch on a cap or sleeve, and more than a few don watermelon watches.

"I think one day soon you won't see anymore Georgia farmers at this market," says Myers.

Melon wars with Florida

While the recent vagaries of the weather have hurt, the real threat farmers here feel is from the melons coming in from Florida. A few years ago, the Florida growing season ended around June 10. But at Saturday night's market, just a few days before the Fourth, melons from the Sunshine State were still arriving here.

Migrant workers, showing their entrepreneurialism, make deals with large farms as they move up through Florida, essentially picking over already picked fields. Since they're doing their own labor, trucking, and marketing, they're able to offer the melons two or three cents cheaper than Georgia farmers. "Many of us need 10 cents, and they can sell them for 5 cents," says one infuriated grower from Pitt County, Ga.

The two camps are not exactly hurling rinds at each other. But there's little love lost between the local farmers under watermelon shed No. 1 and the newcomers over in shed No. 2. It doesn't help that many of the Hispanic workers are driving newer trucks than their Georgia counterparts.

"It's true that a lot of the people in shed 1 are mad," says Jose Serraro, a recent immigrant from Mexico who owns his own farm here in Crisp County. "But the Mexicans have a right to come, so they come."

Many of the American farmers, in fact, are grudgingly impressed with the Mexicans' ingenuity and hard work. They rely on the seasonal workers to pick their own fields in late June.

"Without the Mexicans, there wouldn't be a produce market today in this country," says Jerry Scott, a broker, as he watches a line of men with blacksmith's arms hoist 50-pound melons into a semitrailer.

For his part, Myers isn't doing too badly: On this Saturday, he sells 40,000 pounds of melon, on its way to stores from California to Connecticut. Normally, he sells 80,000 pounds during his time at the market. Like most local farmers, Myers has come to rely on the early-season income from the melon sales, which eases the debt burden for the later row crops like cotton and peanuts. "This is where I make my living," he says.

Seeds of a dynasty

For all the outside threats, Cordele isn't ready to cede its fruit dynasty quite yet. This market remains the largest on the East Coast, and most of the melons sold here today are indeed Georgia-grown. About 110 million pounds of watermelons roll through the sheds here at the State Farmers Market each season, contributing some $73 million annually to the Georgia economy.

Nor is the decline in the melon market a sign that a way of life is ending - far from it. But farmers and brokers here say changes are coming for America's small farmers, those growing 600 acres or less. Between big farms and the Mexicans' thriftiness, life is only going to get harder.

To Myers, it doesn't seem fair that out-of-towners are trying to take over the fields that his father helped build over 40 years. But others, like Tommy Grimes, a buyer, say more than outside competition is hurting locals. Heavy rains have turned ripening melon back to green.

"The quality has been poor in Georgia," says Mr. Grimes. "They're rushing them so they can get the big money out of them before the Fourth of July."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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