How to Pick Your Melons (Hint: Leave it to the Farmer)

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It’s always a bit tricky to call a farmer during the day, a person who will inevitably be busy either chugging along on a tractor or knee-deep in the weeds.

But when we called our beloved farmer Warren Brothers one recent morning to bombard him with questions about watermelons, we found him just as cheerful as usual.

“You caught me at the right time,” he says. “We were just out here thumping and looking at the curly Qs.” 

Watermelons are a favorite summer treat, and a great excuse to take a break (whether you’re out farming in the heat or escaping the office chair).

“A cold watermelon will cool you right off,” says Warren.

North Carolina is among 44 states that produce watermelon commercially; it ranked eighth in the country in 2014. Which is why we’re blessed with local produce every summer. According to Warren, once a watermelon gets plucked off the vine, there’s no turning back — the ripening process is halted. He says there’s no surefire way to check if a melon is ripe, unless you buy a Brix meter, which is a long needle that measures the sugar content. (A quick search on Amazon shows a price range from about $20 to more than $300.)

Instead, he and many other Eastern North Carolina farmers figure it out the old-fashioned way, first by detecting that curlicue.

“My son has devised a plan,” says Warren. “Right where the stem leaves the main vine, it almost looks like a pig’s tail, like a whirligig. When it dries up, that’s the first sign. He’ll find all the ones that have that — it’ll be right crispy — and he’ll mark those watermelons with an ‘X’ in permanent marker.”

Farmers markets all across the state celebrate a Watermelon Day each July (to find one nearest you, visit ncmelons.com). There are hundreds of varieties of watermelon, but only about 50 commonly eaten.
Brothers Farm has been in Warren’s family since the late 1800s. He thinks they’ve always grown melons among their many acres of crops, but now he works with a small plot in his 10 acres to grow watermelons organically. He’s got mostly sugar babies — the personal-sized ones that weigh up to 4 pounds. The crimson sweets he grows are just “a notch bigger.” Last year, he and Vivian found seeds in South Carolina that he later planted on the farm. They came out huge, with a really thick rind — perfect for Vivian’s watermelon rind pickles. 

So what if you’re stuck at a produce stand and unsure which watermelon is the most ripe? Use the thumping method — and your ears. “You’re listening for a dull thud,” says Warren. “If you hit it and it goes “tonk tonk” instead of “thomp thomp” — the more dull the thump, the more ripe it is. When you knock on it, you want it to be deep and not sharp. And that’s after many years of thumping for me to get it right.”

For a cantaloupe, your margin of error is slim. 

“You can just smell a cantaloupe,” Warren insists. “If it has a cantaloupe smell, it’s ready to eat! If it’s mushy, it’s overripe. I don’t think there’s anything worse than an overripe cantaloupe.”


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