Daviess County farmer Gary Cecil was keeping a close eye on the weather radar as he sat inside his truck in the middle of a watermelon field just off Jack Bosley Road in Stanley.

Leftover rain from Hurricane Barry was headed toward western Kentucky, and it was July 15 -- the first day of harvest for the state's largest watermelon grower.

"They can't handle excessive water so that's why we plant them in sandier soils and well-drained," Cecil said. "…It's better to be dry than wet on these watermelons."

Earlier that morning, crews of about seven workers began tossing the seedless watermelons, ranging in weight from 18 to 32 pounds, into converted school buses that had most of their roofs removed to create extra-long beds.

Although labor-intensive to harvest much like tobacco, watermelons have a shorter picking window to prevent them from overripening.

"You can wait on tobacco but you can't wait on watermelons," Cecil said.

In 2018, Cecil Farms planted 200 acres of watermelons but expanded to 350 acres this year, leasing land in Stanley to accommodate the summer staple of picnics and family reunions.

Cecil's main farm is situated near the St. Joseph community, where the family also grows other fruits, vegetables and row crops such as corn and soybeans.

The Cecils began planting the watermelons about April 15 but staggered the planting through June 25. That will allow the watermelon harvest to run through September.

Cecil said one acre produces about 60,000 pounds, or 21 million pounds for the entire 350 acres.

"It was just gradual; we started out with a few acres," Cecil said. "This is the most we've ever had."

To help sell the watermelon crop, Cecil Farms has partnered with Melon 1 -- the largest watermelon grower, packer and shipper in the United States.

Melon 1 is doing the packing and shipping for Cecil Farms out of a former Medley Distillery building in Stanley. It's there workers separate the watermelons into three different bins depending on size.

Matt Campbell, a Melon 1 packing and shipping manager, was there ensuring the process and occasionally pulling out a watermelon from a bin that didn't meet his standards.

Campbell said Melon 1 contracts with about 23 growers from Florida to Delaware who depend on Melon 1 to get the watermelons to stores such as Kroger and Sam's Club.

"We sell watermelons year-round," Campbell said. "...We'll send out a full truckload of 56 bins to the distribution center and they go to the chain stores from there."

For food safety purposes, a sticker is placed on each watermelon that lets Melon 1 know when and from what field it was picked.

"Food safety is a big thing," Cecil said. "The big stores require it or they wouldn't even talk to (Melon 1)."

Cecil's goal is to plant the same acreage of watermelons next year, but he'll have to find different land to do it.

"We have to rotate," Cecil said. "..Disease pressure is so bad on these crops. It takes a few years where it won't pick up the disease that will hurt the watermelon. ... We'll just have to pursue some more ground."

Don Wilkins, dwilkins@messenger-inquirer.com, 270-691-7299.

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