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Celebrating The Big Love Of Big Watermelon

Watermelon Day at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh is no average day at the market. Families pack the gazebo area for the big show. On this steamy 90-degree day, folks came to see some big watermelons. North Carolina is in the peak of its watermelon season.State Farmers Market Manager Ronnie Best lets kids in on the fun, guessing the watermelon weights as they are gently rolled onto a giant scale.

"One-hundred sixty-one, we have 161," said Best. "One-hundred fourty-two. That's a pretty good guess based on the last one."

The watermelon from Pink Hill, N.C., would weigh-in at 158 pounds. That sounds pretty big, big enough to win second place. But last year’s winning watermelon at this particular competition was 70 pounds heavier.

2018 hasn’t been the best year for the big, super star watermelon, according to Best.

“The growing part of it, the farmers part of it has been fairly good, it’s been a pretty good crop. But the big watermelons need a lot of sun early, to get going," said Best. "When they first planted them, we had a lot of cloudy days. Remember in May, we had a lot of cloudy days."

Watermelon, NC State Farmers Market, NC Agriculture
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
State Farmers Market Manager, Ronnie Best, stands with his 20-month-old granddaughter Carly Jordan in front of winning watermelon.

But last year was ideal, a real good growing season. It was so good, the 2017 State Farmers Market watermelon was a record 237.5 pounds.

And the state record was set at the State Fair, later in the growing season. That whopper of a watermelon weighed 316 pounds, grown by Todd Dawson of Garner.

 "Very lucky, very lucky, we had a very good weather year," said Dawson.

But it takes a lot more than luck. Competition watermelon farmers like Dawson say for several months out of the year, his life revolves around that watermelon.

“It’s incredible what we do for these things," said Dawson. "You almost don’t want to tell people because you sound like you’re an idiot for what we do.”

Recently, Dawson jumped out of bed around midnight because of a major storm. He called it a "Biblical rain." Dawson ran out into that storm to get blankets to cover the watermelon stump that comes out of the ground, that isn’t supposed to get wet.

Watermelon, Watermelon Queen, NC State Farmers Market
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC
North Carolina's 2018 Watermelon Queen Katie Honeycutt greets patrons at Watermelon Day, State Farmers Market, July 26, 2018.

“I go streaking out of the house, through the yard down to the field to put the cover over this plant. I get back in and look like a wet dog," said Dawson. "And I’m thinking, 'man, the things we do for these melons'.”

Before, during and after the weigh-in, smaller watermelons were sliced and handed out to Farmers Market patrons or just anybody who walked by.  More than 2,000 slices. Ken Schaeffer and his family from Clayton got their share.

Schaeffer said he hasn’t had a bad watermelon this season. He says he would pay $5 for a watermelon, if he knew it was good. 

"Yes, I guess if it was a 200 pound watermelon we would end up paying more," said Schaeffer.

Still no 200-pounders this go round. The winning big watermelon at the State Farmers Market was 178 pounds grown by H.C. Williams of Bailey, North Carolina. He won $1,000.

If you want to see what it looks like, that big watermelon is part of a big display at the State Farmers Market Restaurant. And no, it’s not for tasting.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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