Dave Weilnau hefts a watermelon over his head and throws it to the ground, shattering it into jagged chunks. “That,” he says, “is how you tell if a watermelon is ripe!” It’s a technique not recommended for those searching for perfectly ripe, sweet melon in the grocery store, at a farmers market or roadside stand, but it’s a time-honored method among growers in the field.
“I’ve seen people knock, smell, even shake melons,” said Weilnau, an Erie County Farm Bureau member, who has been growing melons for 16 years on a portion of his 65-acre farm in Milan. But busting open the shell and tasting it is the only proven method.
A former educator, Weilnau came back to the family’s farm in 1975 to temporarily help his father farm 800 acres of small grain. Although Weilnau and his two brothers grew up on this farm, each said they would not pursue farming as a career. Yet from most vantage points on Weilnau’s land, you can see both of his brothers’ farms, once portions of the family farm. To the north, Sparky Weilnau grows 350 acres of popcorn and many more in soybeans, field corn and wheat. To the east, Allen Weilnau farms 5 acres in produce.
Weilnau recounts that “back in the day” most of the farmers in this area grew melons, which made the town home to the 51-year-old Milan Melon Festival. Today, Tender Shoot Farm is one of two farms left with a melon harvest.
Melon season starts in Weilnau’s 1,600-foot greenhouse in early May where he starts 10 varieties of melons. By the end of the month, he will begin to transplant some of the tender starts to the field and will keep doing so in staggered planting throughout early July to ensure the melons will have a harvest season that reaches into the fall. Beginning in late July, early melons such as Aphrodite, small but sweet, and French Orange, will start coming out of the fields.
Weilnau said what makes his land ideal for melon growing is the glaciated soil, or “blow sand.” “It’s a fluffy, low organic sand that most farmers don’t like because it dries out and warms up too quickly,” he said. “It’s good for melons though, because it drains quickly (melons don’t like to lay on a wet soil) and the warm soil helps them ripen.” His farm is just close enough to Lake Erie that the cool spring breezes moderate the air temperature.
The seasonal work crew at Tender Shoot Farm is made up of local youth. Weilnau likes sharing the same farming experiences with them that he finds have not changed much over the years.
“This farm is my past,” he said, “and when kids come here to work, they do it the same way I did in the ‘60s—still harvesting melons and corn by hand and knowing when they are ready.”
A good growing season for tomatoes is not necessarily the same for melons. Weilnau explains that tomatoes demand hot days and balmy nights to ripen but melons prefer the heat of the day and cool nights and the optimal time to pick is in the afternoon. “The juices of the fruit and plant go into the root at night, and come back up during the heat of the day,” he said, “so the best time to pick the juiciest melon is in the afternoon.” Most years, Weilnau will harvest between 3,000 and 5,000 watermelons and 10,000 cantaloupes.
While Dave dispels all the rituals and tricks people use to pick melons at the grocery store, he does note that a yellow “belly,” the spot where the melon rests on the ground, is a fairly reliable indicator of ripeness. Still, he encourages customers to trust their local growers to bring melons to market at their peak of ripeness.
“My customers buy from me because they expect something good,” he said. “They can bring it back if they don’t like it, but that’s not likely to happen.”
Cantaloupes and Sugar Spots
While a watermelon continues to ripen slightly after it is picked, cantaloupes have to ripen in the field. “The more webbing a cantaloupe has the healthier the vine, the healthier the plant,” Weilnau said. Pick it up and sniff: If it smells like a sweet ripe, cantaloupe, it will probably taste like one. Ultimately, it’s up to the cantaloupe when it’s ready to be picked.
Two features that Weilnau looks for in the field are a clear cracking or separation of the vine from the melon.
“In the final days of ripening, the sugar develops in the melon and the vine pushes or slips away,” he describes. “Where the stem was attached, we look for sugar spots,” small beads of amber, sap-like reminders that develop where the stem was attached.