International Programs News & Views Volume 24
INTERNATIONAL PROGRAMS SPARK NEW PROFITS FOR MISSOURI MELON GROWERS
Samarkand, Andijan, Tashkent are names familiar to the Mongols, Turks, Persians, and Russians who passed through before. These names are increasingly familiar to Missouri Bootheel melon growers. These melon growers have been battered in recent years by low wholesale prices and markets dominated by national brokers. Looking for sources of new income, they have found new opportunities from the Bootheel Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D), Inc.
These ancient cities lay in present day Uzbekistan, one of the Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union. Uzbekistan, about the size and population of California, produces 60 percent of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the former Soviet Union. Especially famous were the over 70 species of melons, many of which are white-fleshed.
American farmers and seed companies have largely under explored these melons because Uzbekistan was closed to Americans since the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 until the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. The city of Andijan was particularly off limits as home of the Soviet Strategic Air Command in Central Asia.
I first tasted Uzbek melons in 1997 and was immediately sold on the quality of the product. I was working as a short-term volunteer with Winrock International on another project. It was not until I moved to Missouri as the new RC&D coordinator--and began working with melon growers who needed help--that the idea of a joint development project came to me. The growing season and crops between the two areas are very similar. Major crops in both areas include cotton, wheat, corn, rice, and melons. The Missouri Bootheel is the area of extreme southeastern Missouri that is a part of the Mississippi Delta and extends down into Arkansas. The Missouri Bootheel has over 5,000 acres of melons annually, the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan has over 25,000 acres of melons and the Andijan region has an additional 5,000 acres. Soils in both areas range from clay to sands. Extensive irrigation systems are needed in both areas to produce crops. Currently, 12 producers are cooperating with the project. Some report melons as large as 12 inches in length as of July 1.
Melons in Uzbekistan are marketed most of the year. Early melons are in the markets by late May. Late melons are harvested in mid-October. Several varieties of melons are then stored into the winter for periods up to five months. Melons provide producers with income typically ten months of the year.
In the fall of 2000, the RC&D decided to move ahead with a grant application to USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service/ International Cooperation and Development. The grant would be used to fund technical exchanges, test plots, hybridization studies, and breeding programs. Cliff Doke, Retired NRCS International Programs Specialist, provided technical guidance for the grant application. The grant application was subsequently one of only 27 funded from a field of 175 applications. The grant will run for three years and provide $25,000. Additional travel funds were obtained from Winrock International through their Farmer-to-Farmer program that is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The project will be of particular benefit to limited resource and minority producers looking for higher value crops for their smaller acreage.
Uzbek growers have donated over $4,000 in seed for the project. Uzbeks know they have a special product, but are prevented from reaching the U.S. markets by high transportation costs. Their interest in the project is to develop a seed and consulting business to support Missouri growers. An interesting note is that after they collect the seed, they get an additional value added product from the melons. Their dried melon is famous over most of the former Soviet Union.
I worked in Uzbekistan for three weeks this spring to study melon production practices. Melon production is concentrated on the medium textured silt loam to fine sandy loam soils. Plants require an effective rooting depth of at least one-half meter. Melon production systems varied substantially from American production systems. Melons are typically grown using furrow irrigation in Uzbekistan. American systems typically involve drip or center pivot irrigation. Irrigation management seeks to avoid over watering to reduce disease problems. Some growers report watering melons as few as four times in areas with basically no rainfall during the growing season of about 180 frost-free days. In Uzbekistan, vines are trained away from the field ditches by moving or cutting. Melons are then harvested by using the field ditches as access roads for a donkey or small tractor.
When melons are seeded, they are substantially over planted in comparison to American systems. Uzbeks typically plant three to ten seeds for every desired plant.his allows for losses due to disease, insects, or perdition.
The remaining plants are then thinned to the desired stand. This is not to be interpreted as low level of management; rather a management system that compensates for limited availability of pesticides and hybrid seed. Fields were typically weeded free from extensive early mechanical weeding, and later hand weeding. Many management practices reflect low labor rates in the former Soviet Union. Field workers are paid from $120-$200 U.S. per year.
All melons were being direct seeded. No transplants were being grown in green houses for early melons as is typical in the U.S. Early melons were being seeded under clear plastic. The plant was allowed to emerge and grow under the plastic until several inches across. The plastic was then cut to allow the plant to grow through the plastic.
Market research is being directed at ethnic Russian and Soviet populations in the Midwest. Asian markets have also been contacted. Chinese typically eat white fleshed melons also. An interesting approach is to sell melon to the Chinese restaurants. Most melons would be served on a buffet. After an American has paid for the buffet, it is not very difficult to get them to sample the melon. I can guarantee that once is enough to get hooked!
A return visit is planned for this fall with a team of technical personnel and producers to evaluate late melon varieties and study harvesting and storage techniques.
Author: Steven L. Welker, RC&D Coordinator, Dexter, Missouri
Editor: Gail C. Roane (retired), International Programs Division