Jim Murphy & Sons

As summer sizzles, watermelon is the centerpiece of the picnic

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watermelon-and-feta-salad

Watermelon wedges and feta cheese can be a truly tasty salad for a hot summer day, especially in July, which Congress has deemed to be National Watermelon Month since 2009.

Walk into any supermarket in the Ozarks in summertime and you are likely to see a display of big, juicy watermelons waiting to be purchased for a picnic, backyard barbecue, or as a tasty and refreshing treat for the family. Conversely, you may also find watermelons only slightly larger than a softball (smaller than a bowling ball), purporting to be seedless and just right for a romantic couple headed for a soiree with or without friends. And last, but certainly not least, you may grow your own, or thumped one at your local farmers’ market.

In fact, watermelon and summer are so closely associated that apparently lacking anything more important to do in 2008, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating July as National Watermelon Month. A year later, the traditionally recalcitrant U.S. House of Representatives followed suit, perhaps the last time the Congress was agreeable to bipartisan cooperation with strong support from the White House.  Thus, the watermelon became the official fruit of summer, at least for the month of July. You may think we make this stuff up, but we don’t have to. In neighboring Oklahoma, where Ozarks Living is available in finer stores that sell garden magazines, the legislature in 2007 designated the watermelon as the state vegetable, amid controversy  about the age-old question of whether the melon is a fruit or vegetable. This is the real deal.

Juliemar Rosado

Juliemar Rosado

But what happens when the days start to get shorter, the mercury starts to come down and the back-to-school circulars fill the advertising sections of the newspapers? For smart marketing purposes, it means it’s time to double-down on watermelon promotions, according to Juliemar Rosado, director or retail operations and international marketing for the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB), based in Winter Springs, Fla.

You may not have even realized there is a National Watermelon Promotion Board. Well, now you do, and it’s something of a scoop because you’re not likely to learn about it elsewhere in the Ozarks until some enterprising young reporter does an online search and turns up this report.

Moreover, you may not have realized that watermelon is actually a member of the gourd family, originally cultivated in Egypt in the Second Mellinium. By the 10th Century, they were popular in Indian and China. So tasty are these melons that their popularity spread into the Europe and eventually to the United States. The fruit is rich in vitamins A and C, and can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways. We have even seen watermelon being grilled by sappy drillmasters who truly do not have enough to do. Watermelon pulp contains carotenoids, including lycopene. The rinds are also edible, but most people avoid eating them due to their unappealing flavor. Right about that.

“Watermelon is a year-round crop,” says Rosado. “Research has shown that people who buy watermelon buy many other fruits, so promoting it can help increase overall produce department sales.”

An August 2014 consumer research study polled 3,200 people and found that those who purchased watermelon in the last 12 months are 33.4 percent more likely to purchase other fruits, including oranges, bananas, cantaloupe, apples and honeydew.

“Approximately 78 percent of those who bought watermelon in the last 12 months also purchased these fruits.”

To help retailers keep the momentum going, the NWPB offers retailers a wealth of resources on its website, www.watermelon.org. There, a section devoted specifically to retailers contains a retail toolbox that includes a peak production calendar and Twitter-friendly headlines to help with promotions on social media, as well as videos and store-level training materials to help educate produce department personnel on the best way to merchandise watermelon.

Also available in the retail section are point-of-sale materials and information about the Watermelon Queen program. There are even festivals, although the nearest one we could find that hasn’t already blown its seed all over Main Street on Sept. 5-6 in Clyde, Kansas, population 914. The Clyde Watermelon Festival is in Cloud County on the border with Nebraska, which is probably a bit more than a One-Tank Trip. But if you’re on your way to a Husker football weekend in Lincoln, now you know how to better plan your trip, so to speak. Or, if it better fits with your travel plans, the following weekend, on Sept. 12, 2015, is the Oxford Lion’s Club Watermelon Feed in Oxford, Kan., population 1,049, in Sumner County, not far from Wichita.

But of course, you may have your own watermelon festival just about anytime, thanks to the National Watermelon Promotion Board. A suggestion: invite the National Watermelon Queen, Emily Brown of Vincennes, Indiana, crowned earlier this year at the National Watermelon Association’s annual convention. As you might expect, the national queen stays very busy throughout the year. No matter, did you know that there are eight other queens who represent various states and regional watermelon associations? We did not.

One post-summer promotion strategy the NWPB encourages is pushing more fresh-cut watermelon.

“In the fall, after the domestic season tapers off, it can be a challenge to have enough fruit for bin promotions, so we like to encourage more fresh-cut purchases,” says Rosado. “It is a convenient, sweet treat for kids and a perfect after-school snack.”

Yet another promotion is to work with chefs and restaurant operators to get more watermelon on their menus.

“At the Watermelon Board, the retail division and the foodservice division work closely to keep up with consumer trends,” Rosado explains. “Ideally, we want to influence chefs and restaurateurs to use watermelon on their menus so consumers will experience it when they dine out and want to make a similar recipe at home. It comes full circle.”

If it suits you, the Watermelon Board is always open to feedback and suggestions from the retail community about how it can best assist with promoting watermelon. Rosado says maintaining a presence at the regional produce shows gives her the opportunity for face time with retail clients, to better understand their needs.

“We want consumers to know that watermelon is not only for summer months,” she says. “When the hot summer months go away, there are still plenty of uses for watermelon in any meal, any time of the day, every day of the year.”

Next in this exclusive series: Is there really a National Ketchup Board? And which is it anyway, ketchup or catsup?

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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