One of the keys to successful fruit and vegetable growing has always been finding good varieties. But “Good” means different things to different farmers. To some, it simply means high-yielding and thus profitable. To others, it means “appealing to consumers”: tasty, attractive and user friendly. The farming world is full of produce that achieves one goal but not the other. At Terra Firma we have always striven to find varieties that achieve both.
A hundred years ago, talented farmers would use traditional techniques to breed their own varieties, gradually improving them over the years. They would jealously guard their creations, perhaps handed down over generations, and use them to develop a following for their produce. With the invention of patented varieties, this task became highly specialized and plant varieties became intellectual property. Fast forward to the 21st century and plant breeders can isolate individual genes for traits like flavor, size, color, disease and pest resistance and combine them to create varieties that would have taken 100 years of old-fashioned plant breeding.
Buying seed, trees or plants is one of the biggest expenses most farmers make each year. And buying a variety you’ve never grown is a bit similar to buying an appliance, as it takes at least a year to determine whether or not it’s any good — longer for perennial crops. But the 21st century tools available to other shoppers are not available to farmers shopping for seed. Seed companies and nurseries don’t give you the opportunity to review their products, and their websites are the farming version of Lake Wobegon: every variety is high-yielding, great tasting and resistant to every pest and disease known to humanity. There still exists no go-to website to fact check these claims.
All of which means that even in the 21st century, identifying good varieties to grow remains a time-consuming but critically important part of a farmer’s job. It’s also one of the most frustrating and rewarding: spending hours of reading, hounding seed salesmen for objective information, and then of course evaluating the crops once they are planted. For every good new variety, there are several clunkers. But unlike 100 years ago, keeping secrets is counterproductive — if only a few growers are buying a certain variety, the seed companies will discontinue it. I try to share as much information as possible with others about the best varieties I find.
Every once in a while, though, I simply stumble upon something great. That’s how I found the watermelon that is in all your boxes today. While we primarily grow seedless watermelon, we still have to plant what’s called a “Pollinator” — a seeded watermelon to cross pollinate with the seedless variety. The melons must be visually distinct from the seedless variety so the harvesters can tell them apart. Generally you plant about 15% of the field with pollinators.
On bigger farms, they don’t even harvest the pollinators, and certainly don’t care much about how they taste. But on our farm we have always try to grow a seeded variety that we can harvest and put in your boxes. For many years, this was a yellow watermelon but that ended up being discontinued by the seed company. Last year we grew a red seeded watermelon, but it was too big for your boxes and wasn’t that tasty. But the nail in the coffin was that it did a poor job of pollinating the seedless melons — its primary job, after all.
Going into 2021, I hadn’t found a good replacement but I wanted at least to ensure we had a good crop of seedless melons. The nursery that grows our plants recommended a pollinator called Edom Mountain. I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was the right size. We harvested the first of the new melons on Friday, and I knew right away that it was the rare “double-winner”: tastes great and produces incredibly well. And while it does have seeds, they are quite tiny and relatively few — about as close to seedless as a seeded melon can get.
The new watermelon may have passed the hardest test of all. My in-laws Jose and Laura were visiting from Texas last week for the first time in two years when I brought the first watermelon I had harvested into the house for a taste test. A big watermelon fan, Jose was excited to try it but told me with resignation “Laura won’t touch it. She hates watermelon. Always has. Don’t take it personally.”
I went back out to the field, and when I came home later, I found out that Edom Mountain had converted a long-time watermelon hater into a fan. If you’re already a fan, then you will love this watermelon. And even if you’re not, you might want to try it.