By Sue Moore
What’s the secret to selecting a ripe, seedless watermelon, now that it’s August and Michigan melons are coming ripe? Josh Bailey, president and owner of Premier Melon in Schoolcraft will tell you it’s the “ping” when you slap the melon. If it’s a good solid ping, that tells it all.
Bailey ought to know. He supplies all of the local grocery stores in this area with Michigan watermelons raised by his growers on property in Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, and several parts of Florida. His business has grown at the rate of 25 percent each year since he started it in 2007. He is in a warehouse and office building in back of MacDonald’s restaurant in Schoolcraft.
His crews will begin harvesting in Michigan by August 15, in the five fields he has contracts on in the Vicksburg/Schoolcraft area. The harvest will be over in about six weeks, but that doesn’t slow the company down for the fall and winter. They contract with growers in Mexico and off-shore the rest of the year, provisioning the major chain grocery stores all over the Midwest.
His company is the chief supplier for watermelons to Wal-Mart, Costco, Meijer, Kroger, Safeway, Sam’s Club, Whole Foods and Spartan. Workers begin harvesting about April 15 in Florida and work their way north as the fields ripen. The process starts with cutters going in the fields to choose ripe melons between 10 and 25 pounds. The cutters are followed by field reps who walk behind the cutters to make sure of the quality of the melons that have been cut. They get turned over on their back to show the white belly for quick identification. Loaders follow next to pick up only those melons which have been turned over. Computerized equipment weighs the melons and sorts for store requirements. Sam’s and Costco want big melons, Meijer wants medium size and Whole Foods wants small melons. Premier ships to Canada too, mostly small size because of the cost of shipping. The chain stores buy either by the pound or the “bin”. The shelf life for seedless melons is about three weeks, those with seeds about half of that.
Premier Melon has come to dominate the watermelon market in the Midwest. “We do what we say we are going to do. The rest takes care of itself over a long period of time,” Bailey said. “We are a full-service shipper, doing it all for the farmer/grower. We get involved in fertilizing and spray programs too. I spend a lot of time away from home during the harvest season, as we start in Central and south Florida and work our way back to Michigan. I can just look at a melon and know that it is ripe, usually by the color of the belly cream or the break in the stripes. It also depends on the variety, as some melons get distinct stripes that break and start to run together.”
From the time the seed is planted in a greenhouse in Hartford, Mich., it takes about 90 days for a melon to ripen. Although there are many melon varieties, Premier Melon only plants a few varieties that seem to work best for the type of sandy/loom soil where they’re planted, according to Bailey. A host of transplanters move into the fields after plastic has been laid down. They punch a hole in the plastic and insert the seedling. The plastic holds the heat from the sun and keeps the weeds down. This year, because of the rain, the weeds had a head start in Michigan. That meant pulling them by hand. Disease is a concern. Fungicides are used to combat it.
Bailey is also invested with two others in a Schoolcraft trucking company, Midlink Logistics. He realized after a few years that he could make more money if he had his own trucks. Now the company is hauling many kinds of produce.
Food safety is a huge concern. Premier Melon invites a third party to audit their facilities. “The quality of our product speaks for itself. To guarantee the quality there are two very important considerations. You have to know when to start picking and when to stop,” Bailey said.