FRESNO, Calif. _ To the untrained eye, the mini watermelon is, well, just a small watermelon.
But to Richard Molinar, there are nuances to note. Does it weigh 4-7 pounds? Is the skin color striped or solid? The rind thick or thin? The flesh a deep red, orange-red or brilliant yellow? Does it have an appealing crunch or a mushy texture? Is it super sweet, or is there a hint of tartness? Is it seedless?
And can farmers make money growing them?
All of these questions come to Molinar's mind as he strolls the watermelon field at the University of California's Kearney Research and Extension Center. Molinar, a UC farm adviser, is co-leader of what is likely the largest mini watermelon trial in the West.
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Industry insiders are eager to taste his work _ and find the new, hot varieties that will snare shoppers. Their wait soon will be over. A public tasting at the center in Parlier takes place Sept. 6, followed by lectures that should have farmers on the edge of their seats: "Viruses and How They Are Spread," "Weed Management: Organic/Conventional," "Insect Predators and Parasites" and "All About Bacillus thuringiensis."
Non-farmer types can enjoy the tasting and skip the lectures.
Molinar's not growing 23 varieties of small watermelons simply because he likes them: There's money to be made. In 2006, mini watermelons captured 8.5 percent of the U.S. market, said Kenton Kidd, a retail merchandiser with the National Watermelon Promotion Board.
It's the fastest-growing segment of the market, he added.
Jefferson Lowe of Corona Seeds in Camarillo, Calif., thinks worldwide demand for the minis is 15 percent. European demand helps bump it up, he said.
"Will market share grow? That is the question," said Lowe, who's predicted the rise of the mini watermelon since the 1990s. While Europeans have long liked small melons, minis caught on in the United States in the early 2000s. Media attention piqued the interest of farmers.
At that time, "everyone was starting to look at this and say, `Maybe we should get into this,'" Lowe said. "By 2004, they were really being looked at more as a fashion fruit," he added. Now, "they're pretty much here to stay."
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For California, the nation's fourth-largest watermelon producer, changes in shoppers' preferences are important. California may trail Florida, Texas and Georgia, but its farmers still harvested 6.4 million pounds of the fruit last year, Kidd said. The San Joaquin Valley is home to important watermelon areas, including Stockton, Manteca, western Fresno County and Bakersfield.
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So why the attraction to the minis? Folks who can't finish the huge ones welcome the smaller size, Molinar said. Plus, the minis (also called personal watermelons) leave more room in the refrigerator.
Beyond those characteristics, farmers have many colors, flavors and textures to consider. At UC Kearney, Molinar points out the familiar striped watermelons, as well as ones with solid-colored, dark-green skins. He thumps them and listens. Overripe melons sound "too deep and hollow," he said. Unripe ones have a "tinny, high sound." And the ones that are just right are somewhere in between.
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He cuts into a couple for a taste test. The red flesh of the Little Deuce Coupe is pleasingly crunchy, but not super sweet. The sunny interior of the Mini Yellow is sweeter, but not as crisp. And neither is as popular as Petite Perfection and Precious Petite, varieties sold under the PureHeart moniker, Molinar said. As in any other food, it's a matter of marketing: PureHeart's name means the customer gets more flesh and about a ¼-inch-thick rind.
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Indeed, a watermelon's success depends as much on advertising as on desirable traits. And no matter the size, orange and yellow ones need a better boost.
"Unfortunately, the numbers on the orange and yellow watermelons, at best, it's 2 percent of the market. And I think it's a crying shame," Lowe said. "We're no farther ahead now with yellows and oranges than we were 20 years ago."
Farmers such as Parry Klassen may solve this problem. This year, Klassen sold a test crop of a yellow-orange mini from his stand in Selma, Calif.
"They loved them," Klassen said of his customers. "Their little 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds could pick them up."
With the harvest season over, Klassen's making plans for double or triple plantings of these minis, making them 5 percent of his crop. He's not sure if he'll grow much more than this, though. He has a problem that affects the general mini market: The little ones cost as much to produce as the big ones.
"Labor (for a mini) is just as difficult as with a regular watermelon," Klassen said. "Growing, the picking cost, everything is the same."
This year, he sold the minis for $4 apiece, the same price as some of his larger watermelons. Predictably, some customers balked.
It's these costs _ along with development of new varieties, marketing and consumer demand _ that influence the market share of minis. Farmers simply can't drop prices too low as supply increases.
"There's going to be price resistance," Klassen said. "I don't know if we can make a profit selling them for $2-$3 each."