Sandy soil, fortunate weather holds the key for area's top melon farmers
With an abundance of sandy soil fields scattered along the area, the town of Forestburg is viewed by many South Dakotans as the state's prime spot for melon growing.
But that strong soil for melons isn't exclusive to the small Sanborn County community. About 30 miles to the south, the sandy soil delivers for the Baker family, as well. For more than a decade, the Bakers, of Mount Vernon, have been growing watermelons and muskmelons out on their 40-acre farm.
“I always get asked if we grow Forestburg melons,” said Ashley Baker, co-owner of Baker Produce.
As the heart of melon harvesting season got underway in early August, the Baker family has been stocking the shelves of their produce stand in Mitchell. Nearly every melon that's sold at produce stands in Mitchell comes from the fields in Forestburg but Baker Produce is one of the lone stands selling melons that were grown elsewhere.
So what’s in the soil that makes for such good melon growing? And why is it mostly unique to this area of South Dakota?
Melons thrive in conditions brought on by warm days and cooler nights, which is a climate that south-central South Dakota offers abundantly in the late spring and summer months. Baker said the secret to good melon growing is the sandy soil. She credits the soil makeup for giving the melons such a sweetness that many customers desire.
When the taproots of the melons grow deep into the sand, it pulls moisture from below. Melons also see better growth in well-drained soil, which is what the sand helps with during the growing process. Baker said steady moisture in the spring and summer make for the best melon growing seasons on her family’s farm.
Too much moisture can have a negative effect, namely losing a bit of sweetness. But that wasn’t what Mother Nature gave their melons this year.
“We just didn’t get much rain this year, so the melons are coming out a little smaller. But they are still sweet,” Baker said. “We had pretty good rains right away, but we could use some again before everything is harvested.”
In Forestburg, Michael Smith, who works for one of the largest melon growers in the Forestburg area, Shane’s Melons, pointed to the patches of clay that some fields have in the soil.
“When it is a dry year, the clay underneath the sand holds the moisture,” Smith said. “That’s why some melon fields like drier weather.”
The Baker family plants their watermelons and muskmelons in the early part of May, and they generally grow for 60 days until they are ready to be picked and brought to the produce stand. With the help of children and Ashley's husband, Kyle, the Baker family takes most of the melon farming on themselves.
As the fall season approaches, the Bakers will soon be gearing up to winterize their melon fields. To avoid fungus growth, Baker said she and her husband rotate the melon fields every year.
“It’s a full-time, year-round job,” Baker said.