August 5, 2019
Written By Adam Buckallew
Beggs Family Celebrates 125 Seasons of Raising Watermelons
Whether seeded or seedless, weighing 3 pounds or 30, few foods are as synonymous with summer as the venerable watermelon. The sweet, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth fruit is the ultimate accompaniment to hot dogs, hamburgers and corn on the cob at family picnics and backyard barbecues alike.
For 125 years in the Missouri Bootheel, one family’s name has been just as synonymous with the fruit. The Beggs family watermelon tradition began when William Arthur Beggs planted his first crop in Blodgett, Mo., in 1895, and it continues today with Donnie and Sheila Beggs, the family’s fourth generation of watermelon producers.
“Back in those days, there apparently were thousands of acres of watermelons raised here and shipped out by rail from Blodgett,” Donnie says. “In 1904 at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, they even declared Blodgett to be the ‘Watermelon Capital of the World.’”
Historical accounts from the early 20th century echo this designation.
“Blodgett is situated in the midst of fine farming country and enjoys the distinction of shipping more watermelons than any other station in the world,” reads a passage from History of Southeast Missouri, published in 1912. “During the season of 1911, there were shipped 600 cars of this fruit.”
While other cities now lay claim to the title of “watermelon capital,” Beggs Melon Co. is doing its part to keep Blodgett on the map. In 2018, the farm produced 125 semitrailer loads of watermelon — about 5 million pounds — grown on only 74 acres.
“This year, we have roughly 155 acres in melons,” says Donnie, adding that 26 acres are devoted to Starbrite, a seeded watermelon, while the remaining acreage is planted to two seedless varieties, Majestic and Captivation. “We’re not doing any corn or beans this year, just focusing on my melons and our fall agritourism season.”
Watermelon production has changed greatly since William Arthur Beggs’s day; however, preparing for the season still begins early each spring. Beggs Melon Co. crews work the farm’s sandy loam fields, preparing rows and applying pre-emergent herbicide to control weeds. Rather than directly planting seed, Donnie says the family opts to transplant seedlings that begin life in a greenhouse out of state.
“The transplants help get you going because they’re already about 30 days old on average when they get to me,” he says. “We never plant anything until after Easter. This year, we planted our first melons around April 20. We planted another batch about three weeks later and then our last batch two weeks after that. It spreads out our harvest.”
Donnie employs a water-wheel transplanter, pulled behind a tractor, to speed the task of getting watermelon seedlings in the fields. A planting crew rides on the implement, which has a large wheel filled with water. As the wheel turns, it makes evenly spaced openings in the ground that are immediately filled with water.
“As soon as the wheel punches that hole and fills it with water, we put the plant in the hole,” Donnie says. “As the water starts to draw down, it just kind of creates a suction that pulls the plant into the hole. It only takes a second and it’s planted.”
Spacing for the watermelons in the row is determined by the variety. For seeded watermelons, the young transplants are placed evenly every 38 inches. Seedless varieties also are placed every 38 inches with a special plant called a pollenizer included halfway between every third and fourth fruit-bearing plant.
“By itself, a seedless melon can’t reproduce because it’s sterile. It needs male pollen from another source,” Donnie explains. “We used to use our seeded melons to pollenize the seedless, but we went to pollenizers to make harvest easier. We’ve really pushed our yields up the last couple of years by tweaking our systems.”
The actual task of pollinating falls to honeybees and bumblebees that move the pollen from plant to plant as they gather nectar. Donnie says that they rent honeybee hives but purchase bumblebees.
“The bumblebees stay around for about six to eight weeks, and that’s kind of their life cycle. Seems like since we started with them, we’ve had really good yields,” he says. “The folks we rent the honeybees from come set the hives when the melons start to flower, then come get them and collect the honey at the end.”
As the watermelons mature, they begin setting fruit from the center of the plant, continuing down the vine as the season progresses. The first melons to develop are called the crown set, and these are typically the largest and highest-quality fruit the plant will produce, Donnie says. The staggered planting of the crop ensures that not all of these melons are ripe simultaneously.
“Your crowns and your first cutting are about the same, but once you get to that fifth or sixth cutting, the melons aren’t as big. The rinds are thinner,” he says. “If you get that far, that plant has already done so much. It’s running out of steam.”
Crews of migrant workers walk the fields every seven to 10 days during the season and harvest the ripe melons. The fruit is brought to the farm’s loading facility where it is sorted by size and placed in bins for delivery to various wholesale customers across the eastern United States. Local peddlers also purchase melons to resell.
“We’re still kind of our own broker,” Donnie adds. “We make every decision on every melon that’s sold.”
As with any farming operation, challenges abound. While yields have roughly tripled since Donnie was a kid, that greater volume isn’t without additional expense. Whereas they once spent about $1 per thousand seeds, Donnie now pays as much as $250 per thousand for today’s highest yielding seedless varieties. Add greenhouse, transportation and planting costs, and he estimates it costs $600 to $700 per acre to plant watermelons.
One aspect of melon farming that hasn’t changed is the manual labor required.
“Except for some of the spraying, just about everything is manual,” Donnie says. “You plant them by hand, you weed them by hand, you harvest them by hand.”
bumper crops and carryover stocks can influence grain prices for years, the watermelon market is much more dynamic. Because he’s dealing in a perishable crop, Donnie says the market is constantly changing and adapting to supply and demand, which he loves.
“Every two weeks, it’s a different ballgame,” he says. “What’s ripe today is garbage in two weeks. So, if there’s a glut and prices fall, it only lasts a couple weeks. Hopefully, that’s when our melons get ripe. Then, we can sell at a decent price and make doing all this worth our while.”
While Beggs Melon Co. has embraced the cultivation of seedless watermelons, don’t expect to see miniature “personal” melons on the farm anytime soon.
“That’s not a watermelon,” Donnie says jokingly about the latest consumer trend. “Heck, an 11-pound watermelon ain’t a watermelon to me. Give me one of my big seeded melons.”
At 53 years old, Donnie isn’t ready to retire just yet. However, the next generation — Taylor, 26; Shelby, 22; and Bryce, 20 — waits in the wings. When the baton is eventually passed, you’ll still find Donnie around, watching his family legacy continue under the cool of a big shade tree — a healthy slice of watermelon in one hand and a salt shaker in the other.
“There’s just nothing better than that,” he says.
Beggs Family Farm, located 6 miles north of Sikeston, opens for its 2019 agritourism season the last weekend in September. To learn more, call 573-471-3879 or visit www.beggsfamilyfarm.com.