Thursday, December 14, 2017

Heirloom Melons - 5 Years Later

We noticed that some of our older posts that focus on particular crops get attention every year during certain times.  This encouraged us to check out some of these posts and consider how things have changed.  Our first post in this series focused on pie pumpkins.

Our melon production has changed significantly over the past five years and yet there are still many similarities.  If you want to see how it was, go to the original Post that is here.

Carrying the Load
Minnesota Midget
We have a few varieties that have been carrying the load for us in recent years.  We decorate the 'edges' with other cultivars in hopes that we find their secrets or manage to luck out with a year that has the perfect weather for them. This is actually the philosophy we have adapted to using over the years that seems to work for us.  Clearly, we need to find varieties that are reliable so we can meet our base goals for production.  And that is exactly where Minnesota Midget comes in for us.

Minnesota Midget is grown exclusively in our high tunnels, though we have had some decent results in the field in past seasons.  These plants like to climb our trellis and seem to enjoy the environment we give them.  Because we had vines in both Eden and Valhalla this past year, we were able to handle the 'mini-disaster' that was our field melon crop in the Eastfarthing 1 plot.  We are actually considering saving seeds next year to see if we can select for plants that are particularly happy with the environment we give them.

Eden's Gem, Oka and Pride of Wisconsin
Eden's Gem and Pride of Wisconsin normally shoulder the load for our field melon production, with reasonably productive levels from 2012 to 2016.  This works well for us since Eden's Gem gets started ripening a week to ten days earlier than Pride of Wisconsin.  The picture above shows an admittedly large Eden's Gem against a relatively small Pride of Wisconsin.  Eden's Gem averages just over a pound in size for us and Pride of Wisconsin runs between three and five pounds.

The really good news here is that all of these open pollinated cultivars have good taste and texture.  So, we haven't sold out just to get some melons here.  Of the three, we might be tempted to say that Eden's Gem is the tastiest, but the reality is that Eden's Gem has the most distinct taste of the three.  Minnesota Midget has a traditional cantaloupe taste, as does Pride of Wisconsin.  All three easily outstrip most melons you will find in the store.

Decorating the Edges
You might have noticed that we did not discuss Oka in the prior section.  That's because Oka is part of our 'decorating the edges' that we mentioned at the beginning of the prior section.  Oka has a very thin skin and is prone to splitting, which makes them a bit difficult to grow for sales.  The example you see in the picture is as about as perfect as they come.  Sadly, that doesn't happen as often as we would like.  We feel like the texture of this melon is what really wins us over - being firm, yet smooth.  Some melons are a little grainy, while Oka is not.  We are hopeful that using our walk-in cooler will encourage us to harvest Oka daily to avoid the splitting they tend to do right after they hit the 'slipping' stage from the vine.

Our favorite for exotic taste is Ha'Ogen.  This melon has green flesh with a gold edge against the seed cavity.  They tend to be quite juicy and smell a little bit like a ripe banana when they are first opened.  In fact, the first taste you get reminds you a little of a banana until.... it changes.  Let's just say you want to leave this melon in your mouth for a second so you can experience the full range of its flavor.  Ha'Ogen is a Galia-type melon and it apparently caught the attention of breeders who are trying to create hybrids that maintain this taste.  Arava is one such hybrid and we will run it with Ha'Ogen this coming season to see what happens.

Of course, this goes against much of our farming philosophy.  We would prefer to grow open-pollinated varieties and we like finding ways to identify traditional varieties that work in our system.  We would rather grow Ha'Ogen successfully.  And, of course, we will continue to work on ways to make that happen.  However, we also want to give everyone the change to taste Galia-type melons from our farm.  If Arava is as good as advertised, we can spend more time experimenting with Ha'Ogen to see what it will take to make it work and still have production to sell.  This approach has worked with our cucumbers and bell peppers in the past, so here's hoping.

Hearts of Gold is a wonderful melon that has a hint of brown sugar to the taste.  The vines seem to be healthy and they produce a fair number of fruit.  So, what's the problem?  Well, they are difficult to figure out when they are ripe.  Many melons "slip" off the vine or change color when they ripen.  Hearts of Gold?  Not so much for either.  As a result, we miss the majority of them when they ripen and then rapidly deflate in the field.  We like their taste so much that we let "Farmer Delusional Syndrome" take over every year and we VOW to figure them out EVERY year.  I know 2018 will be the year.... uh huh. 

Emerald Gem is a much easier melon to grow and harvest.  It is only a little bit bigger than Eden's Gem and it ripens about the same time.  We added it to the mix so those who didn't want a green-fleshed melon could choose the orange-fleshed Emerald Gem.  Yes, yes... we get the irony that the melon with the word "Emerald" in the name doesn't have green flesh.  Look - we doesn't names 'em, we just grows 'em.

Alas, We No Longer Grow Thee
Then there are the cultivars we have tried and no longer grow for whatever reason.  Some of the varieties we discuss below were on the 'don't grow anymore' list in 2012 and they remain there to this date.  We admit that we still read a couple of the catalog descriptions and wonder if we should try to figure them out "just one more time."  But, we've got enough on our plate with Oka, Ha'Ogen and Hearts of Gold.

Tell you what.  Find me 50 or so acres and pay me a salary to figure these things out and I'll do it!  What?  I can dream can't I? 

Boule d'Or
This is a variety we REALLY tried to make work at our farm.  We liked the idea of a melon that stores well and actually gets better tasting n storage.  The descriptions in the Seed Savers catalogue made us feel that we should like them too.  But, reality didn't keep up with the fantasy, I guess.  Seedling death rates were consistently higher than others in our growing system and production numbers just didn't get to where they needed to be for us.

It wasn't all about production either.  Sometimes a variety just doesn't fit your farm.  Boule d'Or just didn't seem to have much going for it with respect to taste when we grew it.  We are NOT telling those who love it that they are wrong to do so.  We have a number of veggie varieties we love that others claim have no taste.  It is a reminder to us that the farm environment can have a say with respect to taste and texture.  Boule just doesn't work here.

Sakata's Sweet
We tried it in the high tunnel.  It climbed the trellising well.  It produced a whole bunch of tiny fruit.  No one in the CSA liked them with the biggest complaint being that it had too many seeds and very little edible flesh.  And, we liked Minnesota Midget in the high tunnel much better.  Okay then.

Crane has received a couple additional trials at the farm and it never really showed us what it could do.  With so many other options that gave us reasons to be optimistic, Crane became a variety that we felt trying it again would be the equivalent to beating your head against a brick wall.  In fact, the last time we tried it was simply because a variety we wanted wasn't available and we still had Crane seeds from the prior season.  That's not much of an endorsement.  We suspect Crane would like a sandier soil type than our heavy loam.

Amish and Schoon's Hard Shell
Pride of Wisconsin continues to hold down the fort and we just haven't had the reason or motivation to run a comparison trial.

Canoe Creek Colossal
We enjoyed this melon when we had it and we have never seen it available since the last year we grew it.  We sincerely hope the variety is not extinct, but we have also found that Oka fills the same role - but with a more manageable size.

Petit Gris de Rennes and Prescott Fond Blanc
Dead plants grow no fruit.  Seedling survival rates of 5% means there were a good deal of dead plants.  So, never mind.

But I Don't LIKE Melons!
Tammy and I are often surprised by how many people inform us that they do NOT like melons at all.  We agree that every person has the right to determine what they do and do not like.  After all, Rob just can't handle carrots and Tammy does not like eggplant.  If the farmers can choose, so can you!

However, we have found that most people who express dislike are those who have been subjected to the dread 'shipping melon' that has been so prevalent in groceries and catered meals all over.  Melons varieties that are bred for consistency in size, days to maturity and a hard shell to allow the fruit to survive shipping rarely are selected for their taste.

To top it off, commercially grown melons are often harvested before they ripen on the vine.  Before you get too critical of this, please remember some of what I've discussed regarding some of our tasty varieties.  It doesn't take much, once they are ripe, for many melons to split or show damage to the hull.  Since consumers generally don't like to buy melons with splits - even though they will have plenty of evidence that they are very ripe and likely VERY sweet - the industry has worked hard to avoid that problem.

Add to this the fact that we seem to think we need melons at all times of year and now we have to ship melons for thousands of miles during the off-seasons.  Why should you be surprised if they were harvested unripe so they could arrive at your store in January intact and ready for sale?  

The result is that most people have not had the opportunity to taste a truly ripe melon.  When you don't get a product at its best, you can't hope to make an accurate judgement as to whether you really like it or not.  What you have determined is that you do not like unripe melons that are bred for uniformity and shipping qualities.  Well, that's certainly fair - and we agree with you!  Join us next season in August and we'll get you a ripe melon.  Then, you can decide if you like a ripe melon that was selected for taste and texture.

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