April’s cold snap may have slowed watermelon production in Mississippi, but growers are still in great shape to cash in on the Fourth of July.

David Nagel, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the late spring frost damaged some transplants in the ground at the start of the season. Farmers worked hard to replant those fields and stay on schedule.

“We are seeing watermelons of good quality and size now that harvesting has begun,” Nagel said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not released the final estimate for Mississippi’s 2008 watermelon acreage, but farmers planted about 3,600 acres a year ago, said Serial Kenerson, deputy director of the Mississippi Agricultural Statistics Service.

Extension area horticulturist Wayne Porter said he expects the final figure may be higher than in 2007 because some growers increased their acreage to supply larger markets.

“Good growers understand that if they seek commercial markets, they must increase their management level to include irrigation and black plastic,” Porter said.

Growers who do not use irrigation on their melons take their chances with rain and other weather problems. Some have turned to irrigation or a combination of irrigation and black plastic mulch to minimize production problems.

A few growers are participating in the Wal-Mart heritage program, which the discount retailer initiated to reduce transportation costs by seeking smaller producers closer to their stores.

“We have two to three growers working with Wal-Mart to supply 400 trailer-truckloads of seedless watermelons for their market,” said George County Extension agent Mike Steede. “This is the first time for some of my growers to try contract sales.”

He said George County planted about 1,000 acres of watermelons this year. Demand for a red, juicy melon with seeds is always high for the Fourth of July, and sales peak then. Most Mississippi watermelons are sold locally at roadside stands, farmers markets and tailgate operations. Food peddlers will often buy truckloads of melons from growers and then sell them at other locations in Mississippi or Alabama.

The wholesale price for melons has averaged about 18 cents per pound this year. The retail price the consumer pays for the melon will vary, depending on size.

“The smaller melons in the 18-pound range sold at roadside stands may go for $5 each, and the larger ones in the 22-pound range go for at least $8,” said Guy Wilson, Simpson County Extension agent.

Harvest of Simpson County’s 50 acres of melons is under way, he said. Further south in Wayne County, growers have another week before they start harvesting, said Extension agent Allen McReynolds.

“We’d like to have more rain for our crop, but we will have some good watermelons,” McReynolds said.

While variety selection is important to reduce disease and insect pressure, the key to good production is for growers to do preventive work to avoid problems, said Smith County Extension agent Jeremy Maness.

Smith County growers have begun harvesting 300 acres of watermelons they planted this spring.

“If the pest likes to eat blooms and he’s there, he’s going to get them and you’ve lost your crop,” Maness said.