TO MOST AMERICANS, watermelon is synonymous with summer. It’s cool, refreshing and a staple at picnics and barbecues from August through September. We expect a watermelon to look, feel and taste a certain way; we trust the watermelons we buy for their consistency and their predictability, if not for their quality.
Most consumers don’t expect to walk into a supermarket and be able to choose among 10 varieties of watermelon (actually, there are about 1,200 varieties worldwide)—we’ve winnowed our selection of watermelon down to the few varieties that produce the most, grow the fastest, travel well and have the longest shelf life. The loss is ours, for in the process of selecting (and creating) the “best” watermelons for the commercial market, we’ve sacrificed diversity and depth of flavor.
This vegetable (that’s right—it’s not a fruit) is a perfect example of how the loss of food diversity has gone almost entirely unnoticed. Consumers are partly to blame, but it’s not like we’ve had much of a choice: In any large summer market—Price Chopper or the health food store—you’re likely to find one, possibly two, varieties of watermelon. There may be an organic option, but it’s still the same old variety (more correctly the same new variety: Most varieties dominating U.S. markets have been engineered in recent years).
But, it’s not all bad news for watermelon lovers. Organizations like Seed Savers, small seed companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and legions of small farmers and backyard gardeners are fighting to preserve the diversity of watermelon varieties, and consumers are reaping the benefits. Many farmers in the Hudson Valley grow five or more varieties of watermelons, often heirlooms. Some have grown more than 30. We may have lost a lot, but by some measures, the tide is turning.
At Common Ground Farm, in Wappingers Falls, young farmers Rebecca and Joe Schwenn, poster children for the heirloom seed and crop diversity movements, grow multiple varieties of just about everything. “Even with boring crops like onions, we’re growing eight kinds,” Rebecca notes. But watermelons seem to hold a special place on the farm. Last season, the duo cultivated more than 30 varieties (though it got a little complicated to try to divide so many sizes and shapes into equal sizes for distribution through the CSA, according to Joe). This year, the farm will produce at least 10 varieties of watermelon come August and September. Some of Rebecca’s reasons for growing so many varieties are political: “Our food supply in general is not diversified at all—that’s a major issue for us,” she says. And, she adds, there’s the simple fact of diversity—”Once you find out that there are so many [varieties] out there, why not?” As for Joe, it’s the sheer pleasure of it: “They’re just my favorite plant to watch—they grow so differently, each variety, both the fruit and the vines.”
A walk through the watermelon patch at Common Ground Farm, (or any of the other farms and gardens throughout the region, for that matter) will reveal a beautiful display of diversity. From far away, the field is a sea of green, but get down to the ground and push aside the lush leaves, and the melons—some perfectly sized orbs, some oblong giants—reveal themselves. Their skin may be striped, solid, spotted or starred, and smooth or slightly bumpy. Cut one open and you’ll find white, red, orange, pale yellow or pink flesh. And then there are the seeds. Black, brown or speckled, they are revealed shining in perfect circular orientation when you slice or crack that melon open.
Of course, seeds have disappeared entirely from most of the watermelons we buy in the supermarket, and the loss has gone largely unnoticed. By some estimates, up to 70 or even 80 percent of the 4.29 billion pounds of watermelons grown in the United States now are seedless. There’s a very simple reason for it—seedless varieties command higher prices. They’re also more useful to processors, and most individual consumers seem to be just as intrigued by (or oblivious to) the novelty. Some people are fighting back: The United States Watermelon Seed-Spitting & Speed-Eating Championship will be held this September in Pardeeville, Wisconsin—it’s been going for four decades. (The record is 61 feet, 3 inches for men, and 39 feet for women.)
Seedless watermelons still taste good; they’re refreshing and sweet and extremely popular, but when it comes to taste, open-pollinated and heirloom varieties win, hands down. And there are dozens to choose from.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, in Missouri, carries 54 varieties of watermelon. Seed Savers Exchange, in Iowa, carries 16. Victory Seed Company, in Oregon, has 22. The plants have names like Georgia Rattlesnake, Early Moonbeam, Mountain Hoosier, Osh Khirgizia, Cream of Saskatchewan and Ali Baba. Jere Gettle, who founded Baker Creek 10 years ago (when he was just 17) speaks of such watermelons as a wine connoisseur would discuss a fine French vintage. One orange variety is “super sweet, with citrus undertones.” White melons, Gettle notes, “have the most crisp flesh, and almost pear-like qualities.” Others ooze juice that tastes just like honey. Gettle can rattle of the specific qualities of each melon they carry without hesitation. Sales are through the roof for melons this year, and for other fruits and vegetables as well. “There’s just more and more interest every year in growing your own, and growing old-fashioned varieties,” Gettle says.
Watermelon can be delicious, whether seedless and commercial or an open-pollinated, heirloom variety. It’s a healthy snack, and a great way to stay hydrated. “During watermelon season,” says Joe Schwenn, “I don’t even drink any water. I’m not sure if it’s the best idea, but I do it.” We should savor watermelon during the hot summer months for what it is: a refreshing, healthful food. But if you have the opportunity or the inclination, try to get your hands on a few heirloom varieties grown by a Hudson Valley farmer. Sit on a stoop with some kids and have a seed-spitting contest. Be thankful that diversity is being preserved. Most importantly, savor the fresh, vibrant flavors. Your taste buds will thank you.
THE IRAQ CONNECTION:
Several years ago, Jere Gettle received a packet of seeds from a gardener in Iraq he’d been exchanging seeds with. It contained seeds for a watermelon variety called Ali Baba, an old variety that had been grown in Iraq for generations. The Iraqi gardener was afraid the variety would be lost; he wanted to pass on the seeds to ensure that somewhere the melons would continue to be grown. Ali Baba is now a top-selling watermelon, but the story goes beyond the success of the seeds.
From the birth of agriculture, farmers around the world have saved their seeds, planting and perfecting old varieties year after year, taking the time to dry and store the seeds, ensuring that their successful varieties would endure. Seed saving was simply a way of life—it wasn’t the grassroots movement that it is now. An estimated 97 percent of Iraqi farmers saved their own seeds in 2002, working within an informal seed supply system that encouraged saving and innovation. Then came “the war.”
Order 81 essentially negates thousands of years of natural selection of agricultural crops amenable to the Iraqi climate.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, huge, multinational corporations (Monsanto and Cargill among them) followed in the wake. As part of Operation Amber Waves, the stated goal of which was “agriculture stabilization,” the U.S. military began giving Iraqi farmers seed, fertilizer and training. If Iraq proves to be like so many other countries, the seeds “given” to the local farmers the first year will not be provided free the next. And they most certainly will not be seeds of varieties that can be saved for the next harvest; farmers will be forced to purchase new seeds each year. (If the process follows prior models, the new varieties promise high yields, but will likewise require massive inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, all of which must be paid for, and the new, patented varieties may not necessarily thrive under conditions specific to Iraq.)
This isn’t a new tactic for American agri-business, but the Iraq model includes another layer—it’s the law. Order 81, one of 100 orders enacted in 2004 by Paul Bremer, Director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, relates specifically to “Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety.” Under Order 81, seeds like those that were given to the Iraqis qualify for “Plant Variety Protection” (patenting). The order, which is dozens of pages long, states that “Farmers shall be prohibited from re-using seeds of protected varieties or any variety mentioned in items 1 and 2 of paragraph (C) of Article 14 of this Chapter.” The Iraqi constitution prohibited private ownership of biological resources, but that changed with Bremer’s orders. Non-Iraqis are now welcome to patent seed varieties, and the seeds that Iraqi farmers have been growing and saving for years do not qualify for plant variety protection.
Of course, the repercussions of Order 81, which essentially negates thousands of years of natural selection of agricultural crops amenable to the Iraqi climate, are lost in the context of a country consumed by violence and political instability. Yet the surge in popularity of the Ali Baba watermelon in the United States has meant that thousands of people each year learn a bit more about Iraq, about traditional varieties of seeds, and about some of the untold effects of the war. Each person who cultivates the Ali Baba, with its deep red flesh, beautiful spotted seeds and squiggly, striped rind, tells a piece of the story.
Gettle hadn’t heard from the man who had sent him the seeds for several years, until this spring, when he received a letter containing packets of seeds for Al Kuffa and Ninevah tomatoes (now being cultivated by Gettle and his team at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds). The man who sent them had moved to London and was no longer able to garden. “In Iraq, the globalization and U.S. occupation have finished the whole heirloom life,” he wrote. “What I am sending are the last tomato seeds coming from this country. Both tomatoes were cultivated by familial farmers groups for small populations and for personal kitchen needs.” He added in closing, “Both don’t exist in Iraq anymore.”