Growers hope exotic melons take root in Southeast Missouri

Thursday, August 15, 2002

SIKESTON, Mo. -- Avenowat. Sakar palak. Zarrcockin. The words are more than a mouthful. But once you have a slice of an avenowat, sakar palak or zarrocockin melon, you will want a mouth full again and again.

That's fine with Steve Welker, coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Bootheel Resource Conservation and Development Inc. Welker wants consumers to develop a taste for these and other exotic melons because that will mean a new industry for Bootheel farmers.

Welker first came across the melons during a visit to Uzbekistan. Working as a volunteer to provide agri-business advice to the emerging economy, Welker discovered he had something to learn from the Uzbek farmers.

"I really got to enjoying these melons a few years ago," recalled Welker, who even admitted to planning his return visits around the peak of Uzbekistan melon season. "Each has a different taste and texture. Avenowat is real sweet. Sakar palak has a taste that is totally different."

When he moved to Southeast Missouri, Welker realized Uzbekistan is located on the same latitude as Southeast Missouri. He found the soils, the seasons and even their crops are similar.

Seventy species of melon

But while Southeast Missouri farmers grow cantaloupes and watermelons, their counterparts a half world away are producing some 70 species of melons. The country, formerly part of the Soviet Union and located in Central Asia, provides 60 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the former Soviet Union.

In 2000, RC&D sought a grant through the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service/International Cooperation and Development. Welker received $25,000 for a three-year project.

Next he recruited area farmers to grow the exotic melons. To make the project more enticing, Welker provided the seeds and even paid some of the production costs.

Sam Story of Sikeston sees the melons as a money maker. After working with a small research plot in Mississippi County and watching the reaction of friends and others to the melons, he plans a 2003 crop 20 times bigger.

"The reaction has been very good. People really like them," said Story. "They are unique, exotic and most people haven't tasted anything like them before."

Story, who said he has never grown melons commercially, has found the crop a little more labor-intensive and had to battle bugs and rain to raise his crop this year. The growing season, he noted, is similar to local melons, about 90 days.

"It has been interesting," he said, pointing out that his crop includes seven varieties, each featuring different tastes and colors.

Using what he has learned from his own plot and from Welker, Story is looking at the melons as a commercial venture in 2003. "That is the direction we are trying to move. The reception we have had is very good and very encouraging. Once you try them you will want them, I guarantee."

Welker sees other opportunities in the growth of the local melon market. This fall he is planning a visit to Uzbekistan with a team of technical personnel and local producers to evaluate melon varieties and study harvesting and storage techniques.

The Uzbek producers and agriculture officials look at this as an opportunity to expand their markets too.

Already they have donated seed to the local project in hopes of expanding into the seed import business into the United States.

For more information about the project, contact Welker at 573-624-4939, extension 6.

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