The Quarterly Book Report: Watermelons Continued

by

So, watermelons. The ones on the buses and trailers — theoretically, they could be on a truck within a couple of hours. Once the melons are cut and loaded and brought to the warehouse, things get a little more complicated than the cutting and pitching stage. It’s an assembly line of sorts. Everything you see in the store, the big boxes, the pallets, the barcodes — they are all assembled and arranged and stuck-on in a big warehouse sitting in a field which is more or less the middle point of all the land my uncle and cousin farm.

The assembly line: one or two people are in charge putting the boxes together and keeping the pallets on the line; two or three people pitch the melons onto the first of three conveyer belts the melons will go down before finding their proper box; the rest of the crew stand in the boxes on the line, pick the melons off the belt and stack the melons in the boxes (which is actually quite hard to do — just you try to stack a bunch of round objects on top of each other). K. and M., the two youngsters, stand near the buses and put barcodes on each and every melon.

The melons come off the buses and go down the conveyer belt. There are people who grade the melons — if there is anything wrong with a melon (a scar, some sort of misshapen-ness or if it is busted), they toss the melons in a bin that will ultimately sit in the sun and rot. Most of the time, there isn’t anything wrong with these melons, taste-wise — they just don’t look good. So they are thrown away. Which is a really big waste, as the outside of a melon really has nothing to do with the taste of a melon. But stores don’t want ugly melons. Because people don’t buy ugly melons. Maybe one out of every six or seven is thrown away.

The melons are then graded again based on size. Stores don’t want melons over 22 pounds, so melons larger than that are taken off of one conveyer belt and placed on another, where they are binned up to be sold to peddlers (the people you see on the side of the road or at a farmer’s market). Between 1/3 and ½ of the melons are too large for stores.

The melons that pass through the first two check points are then placed in the boxes you see in stores. When one box is filled (45 melons per box), a lid is placed on the box, and a forklift picks up the pallet and moves it into the warehouse. 54 boxes is the typical truck-load.

This cycle of cutting, loading, unloading, grading, boxing, etc., continues until it’s too dark to cut melons.

So ends the descriptive phase of my summer. It’s really hot. I should throw that in. Way too hot, in my opinion. Hinges of hell hot. I’m also not sure how my analysis will work, since I don’t know just an awful lot about the business aspect of things, and the other major issue — migrant workers — is something I’m still thinking about.

One of the most notable things about the watermelon industry – if you can call it that – is that it is terribly inefficient. The farmers aren’t inefficient, necessarily. The economics of it all are inefficient. (Two quick parentheticals – 1. I know nothing about economics or farming and, also, 2. I think my experience would go for any fruit production, not just watermelons.)

What I mean by inefficient. The first thing I mean by inefficiency really is just my way of talking about things that just don’t make sense. It’s inefficient in that there has to be a better way, a more efficient way, to accomplish the same thing. It takes, if I remember correctly, approximately $1000 an acre, out of the farmers pocket, just to get a watermelon to the point where it is ready to harvest. It takes another $600 per acre to actually harvest the crop. So, say a farmer has 100 acres of melons, the farmer must, each year, take out a minimum of $160,000 in loans. Which come due immediately after harvest. They take out that much money in hopes of making, oh, a modest income of maybe $25,000. To me, that makes almost no sense. Yet, there’s no other way to grow a crop without borrowing that much money every year. (This is why so many farmers go bankrupt – one bad year, one bad day, and the crop is wiped out. This year was one of those years. A hail storm wiped out the entire crop, and the watermelons had to be replanted).

I’m not sure how to get around this particular inefficiency. A farmer has to borrow money, even though it means living on the edge of bankruptcy for the better part of every year. I know there are some crops that are subsidized by the government in some way or another. I’m not sure about watermelons. I don’t think they are, but I’m not positive about that. I don’t know enough about the subsidization of crops to really comment too much about it. (Anyone with any knowledge, please share.) One of the cures of this particular inefficiency has been corporate farming — where corporations buy and run farms. Then farmers actually don’t work for themselves. They don’t have to take the risks, but they also get much less of the profit. This has led to the decline of family farming. Now, this has been the source of a lot of debate — the end of the family farm — but I’m a fence-sitter here. At least I’m a fence-sitter about the theory of corporate farms. The age of the family farm has probably passed, regardless of the goodness or badness of this. The problem with the practice of corporate farming, traditionally, has been that corporations come in after a farmer has gone bankrupt, buy all of the land or equipment, kicks the family out of the only home they’ve ever lived in, and hires someone to do the job on the cheap.

The second inefficiency: the waste. A good half of the crop is wasted. And for the most part, there is nothing wrong with the melons that are wasted. The melons that are too big for stores are usually sold to peddler. There are ways around this step, but they mostly involve genetic engineering and / or using more chemicals. Both of which are expensive and controversial, as a lot of people don’t seem to like the idea of genetically altering produce and most people (including most farmers) don’t like using lots of chemicals. Anyway, since these large melons are technically throw-away melons, if farmers are to sell them, they have to sell them fairly cheaply. Usually at a loss, but that’s still better than nothing. So, for something like $2 a melon, peddlars can buy all they want. They turn around and sell them for between $6 and $8 a melon. Which is really a good deal for them, and they really are helping farmers out. But it’s a shame that perfectly good melons are wasted to farmers.

The third inefficiency: the red tape. A farmer, heavily invested in a crop, actually can’t sell their watermelons. No lie. Grocery stores and these big fruit distribution centers will NOT buy a melon from a farmer. Because there’s a company – or rather an entire industry – of brokers who have somehow managed to place themselves between the farmer and the market. Now, I actually kind of liked the man who was the broker for my family’s watermelons. Nice guy. Family man. Made me laugh quite a bit. But, roughly 20% of the cost of a watermelon is due to brokers. And, umm…, they don’t really do anything. I mean, they answer the phone and make sure trucks arrive on time and what-have-you, but a good half of the time, my uncle was doing this anyway. But, regardless, if a farmer wants to sell his crop, he has to actually sell it to a broker, who tacks on his “finder’s fee” and then sells it to grocery stores.

This makes no sense to anyone, except the broker. It costs the farmer a hefty bit of his profit. It costs consumers, as melons would be quite a bit cheaper if this step were skipped. But it is what it is. The only way around this problem is if a farmer raised enough melons to make a deal with some grocery chain directly (which would be lots more melons than my family raises), or if they had enough money to just “sit” on their melons until some store got desperate enough for melons that they’d be willing to skip the broker step. Most farmers are neither rich enough nor big enough, land-wise, to do either of these things.

Sorry for the long post. If you made it this far, then I’ll let you know that next week, JU and I will have disagreements over immigration and migrant farm workers.

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10 Responses to “The Quarterly Book Report: Watermelons Continued”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I feel it important to note that I don’t like watermelons.

    Now watermelon candy – a different story…

    But I enjoy very much reading about the watermelon industry from the “inside.” Of course I enjoy very much anything Mikey writes.

    But I don’t like watermelons.

  2. Whitney Says:

    Mikey,
    Do you know anything about insurance in the watermelon industry?

    With cotton, because the farmers borrow so much money initially, they also purchase insurance that virtually guarantees a certain sell price. If prices fall, the insurance company will cover the price difference up to the insured price, which is probably not enough to cover the cost of everything. Of course, bad years with cotton, wheat and other such consumables are softened somewhat by subsidy, but not nearly enough for the family farmer.

    I know because my dad lost his entire farm when I was 10 years old because it rained too much in 1986. The cotton was some of the best ever, but it was too wet to get it out of the ground, so it rotted. There was no crop to harvest & sell & hence no way pay back the bank. Exactly what you described in your post. Even with insurance and subsidies, no crop at all yields less $$ than that borrowed.

    My brother is now in the process of borrowing loads of money for newly rented farm land. Farming to me is such a scary occupation. He’s lucky in most respects that he farms some of his own rental land, but he also works for salary for his father-in-law which gives him some assurance of income.

    Anyway, I ramble, but I find it interesting the stark similarities in different type of crop farming by families who just want to make a living and who have been overrun by big operations. I understand that it is the nature of capitalism, but it is still hard to see it negatively impact people you love.

  3. Whitney Says:

    Aside: Have any of you ever had watermelon water?

    Fill you blender with big chunks of melon, water, and a cup of sugar (or splenda); blend.
    serve over ice.

    It’s YUMMMY!

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Whitney — The insurance is a bit different. Farmers can buy insurance against floods and hail. But watermelons are different from cotton in that there is no way to get a guaranteed price before the harvest begins. There’s almost always someone to buy cotton if you can get it out of the field — it can be stored for long periods of time and there are multiple uses for cotton. Watermelons have a very short shelf-life and so prices are very unstable. It changes almost daily — and sometimes by a great deal.

    Farming is scarey. That’s why I’m kind of a fence-sitter on corporate farming. I hate seeing family members go through the agony of wondering if it’s going to come a flood at the wrong time. If corporations would play nice, then I think they could help small farmers out quite a bit (and vice-versa). But that hasn’t been the case, historically.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Oh — and I’ve never had watermelon water. Sounds good, except for the Splenda — I’d have to substitute a different sweetner for that. But, alas, I’m in California, and the melons in the stores here aren’t very good. Not sure why, since California has such a good fruit industry. But the melons in the stores here really aren’t very good.

  6. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Michael,
    Here’s a somewhat bizarre twist on the watermelon story. BTW, unlike Al, I love watermelon, partly because of the story I’m about to tell. I don’t, however, like salt on it, which all the rest of my family did.

    I grew up on the Arkansas river in Western Arkansas. Along my side of the river, there was a strip of very fertile bottom land about a mile wide that was farmed extensively – a lot of vegetables like spinach, but also a lot of melons – watermelons and cantaloupe. Because of all the produce grown in the area, back in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s a group of local men started a canning factory. It has changed hands several times and today is called Allen Canning Company. If you ever see a can of spinach with a picture of Popeye on the label, it probably them.

    The local canning company worked fine for things like green beans and corn and spinach, but couldn’t process the melons. A few years later, however, – when I was 4 or 5 years old – some other men started a small factory across the street from my house to do just that. It was fun to watch all the big trucks come and go with all those big Black Diamond watermelons, but what they did to them in the plant I thought was just plain crazy!

    The plant made Watermelon Rind Pickles. They employed a lot of local ladies who would take the melons and cut off the rind, cube it up into little chunks, and pickle it. As for the hearts – the good part – they just threw it away! There was an up side though. Out one side of the plant, there was a long conveyor belt that took the hearts out and fed them into a garbage grinder. Anybody who wanted to could come and stand by the belt and fill up a dishpan full of fresh watermelon hearts and take them home for free. Naturally, that was a pretty popular place on a hot summer afternoon. As a result, we always had a nice cold pan full of watermelon in the refrigerator.

    That plant is still in operation, 50 years later, but in a different place in town. Evidently, a lot of people like Watermelon Rind Pickles.

    Strange but true.

  7. Michael Lasley Says:

    Never heard of watermelon rind pickles. But, Black Diamond melons are the best, in my opinion. But, since they get so big — farmers rarely grow them anymore. At least not around our parts.

  8. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Michael Lasley said…
    Never heard of watermelon rind pickles. But, Black Diamond melons are the best, in my opinion. But, since they get so big — farmers rarely grow them anymore. At least not around our parts

    You’re right all around about the Black Diamonds. They are the best for eating, but they do get too big for the mass market, I guess. Having grown up with them being raised just down the road, It was always a letdown to go to the store and see those pitiful little striped things that came from Texas or somewhere.

    Watermelon Rind Pickels did, back then, and still do today, strike me as a very strange and wasteful use of a good watermelon. Some folks like them though, I guess. They are still being made by this little company called Bryant Preserving Company in my home town. Sometimes you can find them in the supermarket with the cocktail onions and such things.

  9. ChrisG Says:

    I very much want to hear the report on the disagreement over immigrants and migrant labor.

    That broker thing you mentioned is prevalent all through the food industry. Here in New York, there’s a distributor and maybe others between the producer of almost anything and the retailer. Why? Anymore with retailers being as big as they are, it seems wasteful – the product of a bygone era when communication required different methods and timing required this middle folks. The question that interests me in this is: how in the world do we change it now, seeing how deepy entrenched it is?

    do write more about the migrant thing. This is an interesting story I’d like to read more of.

  10. Michael Lasley Says:

    Thanks Chris. I got busy grading papers this week and forgot to write a post. Next week, hopefully.

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