Watermelons provide tough yet sweet education for students

Watermelons provide tough yet sweet education for students
Agronomy student Annette Hernandez catches a watermelon.
Joshua Endow, a horticulture major, tosses watermelons during harvest at Spadra Ranch.
Brittany Moreland, an agronomy senior, stacks watermelons as other students pass them to her.

Call them the watermelon ladies. After all, they've been tending to more than 4,500 watermelon plants for the last three months — planting, irrigating, weeding, weeding and more weeding.

The 2.1-acre watermelon patch at Spadra Ranch is the student enterprise project of agronomy majors Magdalena Vree, Brittany Moreland and Annette Hernandez. They planted four varieties of watermelons in mid-May and began harvesting them about three weeks ago.

“It's a lot of work, and we kind of expected it to be,” Moreland says. “It's nice to get experience in the field.”

Through the project, students learn time management, setting up an irrigation schedule, adjusting for changes in temperature and climate and predicting when the fruit is ready to pick. The university pays for all the expenses of the project up front, including labor, supplies, pesticides, fertilizer and water, and many of the supplies are donated.

The enterprise project also provides learning opportunities in marketing and selling. While the majority of watermelons are sold to a distributor who supplies stores in Los Angeles, some are also available at the Farm Store and other local markets. Hernandez, a senior and McNair scholar, estimates they'll harvest 50 tons from the patch this summer. After the expenses are covered, the university gets 30 percent of the profit and students get 70 percent, which helps pay for student fees.

When it comes to taste, the Sangria variety, an oblong watermelon with seeds and bright red flesh, is a definite winner. Although it is super sweet, consumers prefer seedless melons, Mooreland says.

Still, when planting watermelons, the field must have both seedless and seeded types. The seeded variety, or the male, is needed to pollinate the unseeded, or female. Most commercial farms will have a 1-to-3 male-to-female ratio, but the student group planted a 1-to-2 ratio because they liked the sangria variety more. The other types of watermelons they planted are: Supercool, No. 7187 and a yellow-fleshed variety.

During harvest season, students cut open 10 to 15 melons a day to check them and taste for ripeness. After so many tastings, these women are practically watermelon connoisseurs. “We eat it all day,” Hernandez says. “We're the watermelon ladies.”