The next time you find yourself passing through Colorado’s Arkansas Valley it might be a nice gesture to give a nod to the late G.W. Swink, a guy who should get a lot more credit than just being the namesake of the town that bears his name. Though he put his name on the town, Swink actually put nearby Rocky Ford on the map as the ‘melon capital of the country.’
In the latter stages of the 19th century Swink introduced melons to the region and by 1887, up to 300 million tons of watermelons were sprouting out of the area’s rich soil, most from Rocky Ford. Today, more than a century later, the sweet, succulent melons are still one of the summer’s favorite regional taste treats in Colorado and across several nearby states. Rocky Ford and watermelon, like ‘love and marriage,’ are synonymous.
What’s the secret? “I’ll give you the canned answer,” said Gail Knapp, whose family runs one of the region’s biggest melon patches. “It’s our hot days and cool nights.” Good soil also factors into melon math. Of course, there’s always that seasonal ‘too much of a good thing,’ she said, that can ruin a crop. “There’s a heat point where things start going backward. It doesn’t help.” This year, the Knapps, along with scores of other Arkansas Valley growers, caught not only heat but a few other curveballs thrown at them by Mother Nature.
“We didn’t get off to a very good start,” said Knapp checking off the season’s weather headaches. The last frost was May 23rd, she said. “That’s two weeks past normal.” June was cool---actually cold by Valley standards. “When it warmed up we had hundred degree weather.” Lamar, an hour east, was testament to this summer’s roiling heat. It set the record for the state’s all-time high temperature with 115 degrees. “The poor little plants didn’t know what to do.”
At various points, the heat and cold, nature’s two most consistent pitches, had spirits simultaneously soaring and diving. In the end, the dives outpaced the climbs not only for the Knapps but for most every other planter in the Valley. Production was down. This year’s crop, she said, was “below average.” But ‘below average’ Rocky Ford melons would still qualify as ‘excellent bordering upon supreme’ for melon aficionados.
Meloneers---what everyone turns into this time of year and the mascot for the town’s high school---still flooded Rocky Ford for the Arkansas Valley Fair. Over the weekend, fairgoers poured in for Watermelon Day, still the big event of the Fair where free watermelon continues to draw.
It might seem a light year from Denver to Rocky Ford in countless ways. But that might just be the draw for the folks who call it home. “We just wanted to get into a small community,” said Peggy Meyer, Manager of the Rocky Ford Chamber of Commerce. “The community is a great community of people,” who she said, “take care of each other.” Meyer and her family sensed a changing metro area years ago and headed southeast. They never looked back.
Town volunteers runs the local movie theater, The Grand, she said with a sense of pride. It’s open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Meyer says Rocky Ford’s people, especially its diversity, make it the perfect place to call home. “We all care about each other.”
Farming and ranching are the lifeblood of the town and region. But things are changing, some faster than others. A new immigration policy has skimmed a lot of seasonal labor from the workforce. To keep things running, the Knapps are meticulous about observing the H2A program, the immigration regulation governing seasonal agriculture workers. “It’s not cheap,” she said, “but it allows us to stay in business.” Then, there’s that other thing. The one that’s out of the Knapps’ hands and everyone else’s.
“We’re concerned about climate change,” said the veteran grower. “We live and die by the weather.”