The next time you want to start a conversation, there’s no better or more esoteric way to begin than with a dissertation on the watermelon. Did you know, you might begin by casually saying---and no pun intended---that its roots can be traced back 5,000 years to Africa? It was often a source of water on long treks where water wasn’t available. Or, how about that watermelon was Mark Twain’s favorite fruit? “When one has tasted (watermelon),” said the famous writer, “he knows what angels eat.”
Long time Rocky Ford watermelon man, Michael Hirakata, knows his melons. His family’s been plucking fruit---cantaloupe, too--- from the ground since not long after they landed here in 1927. “The railroad,” and an opportunity for work brought his grandfather here. Farming is what kept them here.
This year’s crop, said Hirakata, grades out lower than he’d like, but still not bad. “The crop over all is a B-minus,” he said. Rain, as it is in these parts, isn’t always a sure thing. A disease also hit the crop, but not to the point where it ruined it. This season Hirakata’s still taking “two million” melons to market.
The melon harvest will find its way all across Colorado and into a small network of places outside the state, too. The fifty-year-old Hirakata says there’s always a demand for Colorado melons and especially those from Rocky Ford which bills itself as “The Sweet Melon Capital of the World.”
It’s the hot days and cool nights that combine for the perfect melon, said Hirakata, in between trips to the field and his office one recent morning. “It’s just a different taste,” he said. “It’s really sweet, delicious.”
He attributes the sweetness of the melon to the weather in the Arkansas Valley. Daytime temperatures often hit triple digits while nighttime and early morning temperatures sink like a ship’s anchor. “Yesterday it was a hundred (degrees). This morning it was 57. That’s a 43 degree temperature swing.” It’s that bounce that gives Rocky Ford melons their unique taste.
While the market will get most of Hirakata’s melons, he and other growers give tons of the fruit---literally---to fair goers. Watermelon Day, one of the highlights of the Arkansas Valley Fair, means free watermelons to anyone who wants one, two or more. The Fair took place over the weekend.
In addition to sometimes unpredictable or unforgivable weather, as well as disease, Hirakata also has to be concerned with finding enough labor to harvest the crop.
Much of the labor he hires are people he has hired in previous years and know the job. Because of an immigration crackdown, “Labor is a challenge every year,” he said. “We do what we can.”
Except for the truck that’s delivers Hirakata’s watermelons, what you see at the store has been handpicked. “We pack nine to twelve to a box. That’s what we ship to the stores.” Cantaloupes are harvested mechanically.
A question Hirakata’s asked and answered thousands of times got one more treatment in our phone conversation. He’s fine-tuned the answer to “How do you tell if you’ve got a good watermelon?”
“If it’s a good melon,” he confidently said, “it has a deep resonating sound. If it thuds, it’s over-ripe.” Also, look at its stripes. A good watermelon’s stripes are slightly raised up. “If it has little bumps on it, it has a lot of sugar.” He even has a suggestion for the next and regularly asked question: What’s the best way to eat watermelon?
Hirakata, one of the Valley’s---and perhaps the world’s---watermelon aficionados, says there are few ways to ruin the taste of this fruit. He prefers it “with salt or tajin,” a spice favored in Mexico. “But the best way to eat it is to cut it up and mix it with cantaloupe.” You heard it here first.