Melon mania — Green River produce just can't be beat

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 17 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Families in Green River grow a large variety of melons.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

GREEN RIVER — Even the mosquitoes like Green River melons.

There seem to be hundreds of them buzzing in the field at Dunham Farms. Below, leafy green vines partially camouflage the striped watermelons lying on the ground.

"Every bird, raccoon, deer, skunk and other wild critter likes a good watermelon," said Chris Dunham, pointing out where the fruit has been hollowed out, leaving an empty shell of rind. But fortunately, there are plenty of melons left in the field for humans — who also like a good watermelon.

Green River is the state's prime melon-growing spot, and every year the town celebrates Melon Days during the third weekend of September. This Saturday at the city park, truckloads of melons will be cut up and given away to festivalgoers, courtesy of the Dunhams and other longtime growers, such as the Vetere and Thayn families.

In late August and September, Utahns look for the identifying "Green River" signs and stickers in grocery stores and farmers markets. Travelers on I-70 make a point of stopping at the roadside stands dotting the small town.

"People buy truckloads of melons out of those stands, they like to take a bunch home to their families," said Seth Winterton, the deputy marketing director of Utah's Own, part of the Utah Department of Agriculture. "They have a reputation for being really sweet. That desert atmosphere is perfectly suited for melons, and they're right on the Green River so they have plenty of water."

Location has a lot to do with it, agreed 77-year-old Nancy Dunham, whose family has grown melons for more than 40 years. "Melons like desert climates. They want the hot days and the cool nights. The temperature fluctuation is what makes them store sugar. They also like sandy soil, but they don't like a lot of water."

The area has more than 100 years of melon-growing experience. As early as 1900, J.H. "Melon" Brown was experimenting with the crop. In the 1960s, Gene and Nancy Dunham started a pumpkin patch for their six kids, and it grew into a melon operation as they bought more land. Gene has since passed away, and son Chris now oversees the farm.

"Watermelons have a special energy to them that a lot of other plants don't have," Nancy Dunham said. "You can't grow them more than one or two years in the same soil, because they take some kind of energy out of it. In order to farm 50 acres of good melons, you need to have about 200 acres on your farm so that you can rotate the crops regularly. We've been fortunate to have enough land to do that."

The Dunham roadside stand boasts numerous prize ribbons that their melons have won in state and county fairs. There are huge bins piled with watermelons, yellow Crenshaws, Canaries, honeydews, cantaloupes and golden Israeli melons. There are variations, such as the 4- to 6-pound mini-watermelons, with thin rinds and few seeds; and the "honeyloupe," a cross between a honeydew and a cantaloupe.

"But watermelon is still the moneymaker," Nancy Dunham said. Chris added that he probably grows twice as many watermelons as the others.

Which begs the age-old question of how to pick a good watermelon. What's with all the tapping and thumping?

A ripe watermelon, when tapped, is supposed to have the same pitch as a B-flat, said Nancy Dunham. But what if you can't tell a B-flat from an F?

"It's supposed to sound crisp and hollow, with just a little wiggle in the middle," she added. "If it makes a dead thump, it's overripe."

Another tip that Chris Dunham gave the Utah Farm Bureau News in 2004: "Pat your stomach and listen carefully to that sound. Then pat the melon and see if the sound of the melon matches the sound of your stomach."

Also, the underside should have a creamy yellow spot rather than pale green or white. This shows where the melon sat on the ground and ripened in the sun. Other tips from the Watermelon Promotion Board: