Watermelons thrive in prime South Dakota environment

FORESTBURG, S.D. -- As the South Dakota State Fair approaches in Huron, a ritual taste-of-the-summer hits full stride on the roadsides -- famous watermelons and muskmelons from Forestburg, S.D.


FORESTBURG, S.D. - As the South Dakota State Fair approaches in Huron, a ritual taste-of-the-summer hits full stride on the roadsides - famous watermelons and muskmelons from Forestburg, S.D.
A handful of families in Sanborn County carry on the melon-growing and selling tradition that is based along South Dakota Highways 34 and 37, between Mitchell and Huron. Families have plied the melon trade since the 1910s and 1920s.
Melons thrive in the hot days and cool nights, and most are grown along the west side of the James River, where glaciers dropped three feet of sandy deposits on top of clay. Taproots go down into the sand, pulling moisture from below.
James River phenom
Among the youngest in the melon game is Shane Baysinger, 50, who farms with his wife, Lynette. Most of his melons are direct-marketed through a stand in Forestburg, called Shane’s Melons.
“My parents raised them, my grandparents raised them and my great-grandparents raised them,” Baysinger says. “We’ve had melons in our family for over 100 years.”
Shane has been working in the business since eighth grade, and full time after graduating from Artesian (S.D.) High School in 1983. He took over an operation run by his grandfather, Clyde, who died in 1984. His father, LaVern, ran a separate operation until the 1970s.
Shane’s watermelons are sold in Minnesota and Iowa, and the Hot Springs, Hill City and Custer areas in the Black Hills. “Some of my cousins haul them out there, too.”
Shane’s great-grandfather, Amasay Willowlay “A.W.” Baysinger, was one of the early growers. He and his wife, Nora, had 12 children, and all but two went on to raise or help with the melons. Shane’s grandfather Clyde raised melons, as did his brothers Bud, Lug, Mel, Dallas, Dan and Ray. Four had stands along highways, while the rest hauled melons to grocery stores and sold truckloads from the fields. Clyde’s sister, Elsie, lost her husband early in her marriage, but continued to raise melons on her own. She sold them from a stand where A.W. and Nora sold their melons. Clyde’s sisters Evelyn and Charlotte both maintained stands with their husbands and children. He also has cousins in the business in Woonsocket, S.D.
Aptly named
The Produce Marketing Association says watermelon contains 6 percent sugar and 92 percent water. Two cups of watermelon contain 80 calories, with 27 grams of carbohydrates, 24 grams of sugar and 2 grams of dietary fiber. The same serving size contains 25 percent of the daily value of Vitamin C, 20 percent of Vitamin A, 1 gram of protein and 10 milligrams of sodium.

Watermelons contain large amounts of the antioxidant lycopene. It is a certified heart-healthy food by the American Heart Association and some promoters tout the fruit’s effect of reducing skin wrinkling.
According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, based in Winter Springs, Fla., says that more than 50 years ago, the industry developed seedless watermelon, a popular alternative to the seeded types. Seedless watermelons are created by putting male pollen from a watermelon containing 22 chromosomes per cell on a female flower with 44 chromosomes. When this seeded fruit matures, the small, white-seed coats inside contain 33 chromosomes, rendering it sterile and incapable of producing seeds. The process does not involve genetic modification, the Watermelon Board emphasizes.
Local growth
Rhoda Burrows, a South Dakota State University Extension horticulture specialist at the West River Ag Center in Rapid City, says the melon trade is one of the most historic horticultural enterprises in the state. Burrows knows of no trademark on Forestburg melons, despite their profile in the Dakotas.
About 10 years ago, Burrows estimated the industry grossed about $3 million, mostly from the Sanborn County area near Forestburg. Producers volunteer little information about things like yield and price.
About 300 to 500 acres of watermelon are grown along a 12-mile stretch, and several others grow watermelon in pockets. Some are grown with irrigation, and most are grown on raised beds with plastic mulch and drip tape irrigation. Producers limit water later in the summer to increase the concentration of sugars and avoid disease.
Producers rotate crops so they don’t grow watermelon more than once every three years. Sometimes, the melon acres are rented so they can be grown on acres that haven’t had watermelons before.
Often, the watermelon patches are five to 20 acres and aren’t always near an irrigation well, so farmers haul water to 1,000-gallon tanks to feed irrigation tapes connected to the plastic mulch.
The melons can fall prey to deer, raccoons, pheasants, mice, insects and diseases.
Producers band together to buy “seedling sets” of watermelon plants, sometimes from Michigan and Illinois, which can then be planted in March.
Who will step up?
Kelly Larson, 63, raises watermelons with his mother, Beverly 84, and brother, Paul, 61, with the help of another brother, Larry, 65. Kelly’s great-grandfather raised melons. They started harvesting about Aug. 5 and hope to continue through mid-October.
Larson says the industry is dying because of the age of producers. “You can’t get any help,” Larson says, noting the family is dealing with melons for seven or eight months out of the year. “We go 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. this time of year.”
Larson says there were 17 stands between Mitchell and Huron at one time, but now only three.
Some growers have contracts with retailers, others don’t. In some cases, producers operate part of their business as a wholesaler, sending people away with trailers and pickups. “There are days we send 10 to 20 tons out, and days we put out a couple of tons,” Kelly Larson says.
Watermelons on sale for $5 in Forestburg are often shipped elsewhere, and a retailer will charge what the market will bear - sometimes $10 to $15 each. “They’re making more than we are,” Larson says, but acknowledges there’s nothing wrong with that. He thinks it’s wrong when Oklahoma and Texas suppliers occasionally bring watermelons and incorrectly label them as Forestburg melons. “Those are ‘time-ripened,’ not ‘vine-ripened,’” Larson says.
Still on the map
Joe Tlustos, a proud son of Forestburg and now director of radio for South Dakota Public Broadcasting, based in Yankton, says the melon business has been an important identifier for the community.
“You meet people, you do the typical South Dakota thing: ‘How are you doing? Where are you from?’ You tell them you’re from Forestburg, and they say, ‘Oh, that melon place,’” Tlustos says.
He says the business is tough because it involves a lot of hard labor, picking melons and throwing them onto pickup trucks or trailers.
Tlustos says the glaciers dropped the sand on the west side of the James River and rocks on the east side of it. “You’re either picking watermelons on the west side of the river or rocks on the east,” he says, adding he never worked in the business.
“God no,” he says, but adds “It was always a full employment thing, for strong teenaged backs.”
On Aug. 15, the Forestburg community held its third annual Watermelon Festival - an event designed to raise awareness of the community’s melon heritage and raise street repair funds for the unincorporated village, which is home to about 50 people. The event included a car show, music and food - with watermelon at the center of the plate.

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