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Rush Springs digs in for annual watermelon festival

Farmers in Rush Springs, OK, are getting ready for Saturday's watermelon festival.
By Kyle Schwab kschwab@opubco.com Published: August 8, 2013

Darin Horton has been picking watermelons since he was 5. Now, with more than 40 years experience, he goes mostly on looks when picking from his fields in Rush Springs.

Horton and his team have watermelon picking down to an intricate three-person system. Once the watermelons are cut, they are lined up on the side of one of the “drive rows,” which are wide enough for Horton's F-150 to drive down.

They slowly make their way down the sandy mud, loading hundreds of watermelons lying on the ground. Horton drives, while one person pitches the watermelons to the third person standing in the truck bed.

“It's a hot and long summer job,” Horton said. They usually load and transport 1,000 melons a day.

Since machines can't be utilized in the picking process, manual labor is the only option when harvesting the crop. And it's the biggest cost to watermelon farmers.

After one row, the truck bed is full of gold strike watermelons.

This variety's innards are bright orange, but the melons taste identical to the traditional red ones. Hybrids like this are pretty common, available also in yellow.

Whether you're a farmer in the field or a consumer at a produce stand or grocery store, there is an art to picking watermelons — and everyone has his own method.

Joel Tumblson picks his watermelons by the curl and belly. When the curl (the stem connected to the vine) dies, and when the belly turns white, it is generally ripe, he said. He also thumps them in the field.

“When you thump it, you get kind of a dead sound to it. That means that watermelon's done all it's going to do,” he said, thumping and slapping some watermelons at his roadside stand. “It's kind of a ‘thud' sound.”

Tumblson has been growing since 1991. He has four fields a few miles apart to prevent losing everything if damaging storms hit.

He grows 60 acres of watermelons in his fields, alongside cantaloupes, tomatoes and other produce.

“Rush Springs is an excellent place to grow because we have sandy soil here that lets the watermelon roots go deep to get that moisture,” he said.

“And believe me, how they can take all that moisture out of the ground is beyond me when we don't have a lot of rain.”

A lot of rain isn't really wanted. In Tumblson's opinion, the drier the year, the sweeter the melons.

The art of the pick

All watermelon connoisseurs have their own system for picking the perfect melon.

Some slap, some pat, some thump and some even smell.

Karen Dodson has run Tumblson's stand for 11 years now, and she has seen every method imaginable for checking ripeness.

The most interesting approach Dodson has witnessed is the straw technique. For this procedure, a broom straw is placed on the watermelon — the straw lying perpendicular to the melon's oval ends.

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