Vegetable crops may offer row crop farmers a means of spreading production risks while tapping into an emerging market niche — consumer demand for locally grown produce.

“We keep trying to find something to make money,” says Ted Higginbottom, a diversified farmer whose enterprise mix includes peanuts, cotton, corn, grain sorghum and more recently watermelons and cantaloupes in west and central Texas locations. Johnnie Osborne, farm manager at Higginbottom’s Navasota, Texas, farm, may add sweet corn and onions to the mix in 2009.

Osborne has planted as many as 180 acres of watermelons on the Navasota farm but cut back to 90 in 2008 and next year he will only plant around 25 acres.

“We’ve planted watermelons for two seasons and had two bad years,” Osborne says. One year was too wet at harvest; the other was too dry and too windy early in the season.

He’s also changing his marketing plan. “We packed out the crop in 2008,” he says. “Next year we’re switching to bigger varieties and will sell produce off the farm to peddlers who sell on roadsides and farmers’ markets. They like the big melons and say they taste better.”

He’s grown both seeded and seedless melons in the past. “The seedless seemed to be sweeter but the seeded ones are bigger and that’s what the peddlers want.”

Osborne says selling produce off the farm also cuts labor costs.

He’s cutting expenses further by eliminating plastic mulch. “We’ll go back to the old way in 2009,” he says. “Plastic requires too much labor and too much expense.”

Weed control, he says, will be as good or better without the plastic. “Weeds came through the plastic anyway.”

“It doesn’t make a lot of difference since we irrigate with a pivot instead of drip,” Higginbottom says.

They use a pre-emergence herbicide. Insect pest targets include cucumber beetles and flea beetles.

“But fungicides are our biggest expense,” Higginbottom says. “We spray every four to five days for downy mildew.”

“We have to stay on schedule to prevent disease,” Osborne says. “We have no resistant varieties and if we have adequate moisture and the right temperature we will get downy mildew.”

He plants on a raised bed. “That helps with drainage and gets water off if we get a big rain. We needed the beds year before last when we got 7.5 inches of rain from June 17 to July 4.”

He says watermelons fit well in rotation with cotton and corn. “Corn behind melons does well. We get some residual fertilizer and sugar from melons left in the field.”

“Watermelons take a lot of fertilizer, a lot of phosphorus up front and then we spoon feed with foliar fertilization in-season,” Higginbottom says.

Irrigated crops did fairly well in 2008. “Irrigated corn was good but we had no rain from the time corn was knee high until August,” he says.

Irrigated cotton did well, but some was wiped out by a hurricane and dryland production “was just too dry,” Osborne says.

It was an expensive year to irrigate. “We have big irrigation and diesel bills,” he says. “This was the most we ever paid for diesel, about double anything we had ever paid before.”

They plan to maintain corn acreage at about 1,600 acres for 2009 and cotton at 1,000 acres and may add some milo to the mix. They also planted some fields in winter wheat.

Osborne says he’ll stick with Delta and Pine Land cotton but will switch to Integra corn hybrids. “Integra produced the best yields in 2008,” he says.

He’s considering sweet corn as well. “We may plant sweet corn in watermelon middles. Corn will provide a good windbreak and give the vines something to anchor to.”

He grew a small plot of cantaloupes in 2008 and said the market was good, so he’ll plant more in 2009. “We’ll also try a few sweet onions.”

“The vegetable options offer promise,” says Jason Holley, manager of the Wilbur Ellis facility in nearby Hearne, Texas. “It’s a good new market option,” Holley says. “After the food safety scare, the public wants local food. Stores want home-grown produce and they are looking for farmers to grow it. They want more options to buy locally.”

“Vegetable production offers a few new wrinkles,” Higginbottom says, “but it also comes with a hefty demand for labor and management. A good manager helps,” he says.

“Vegetable production requires a lot of work. Johnnie stays on top of it, and Jason helps with chemical and technical information.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com