An old rule of public speaking says you should never start by gauging listeners’ interest in your topic, since they might have none. But that didn’t stop Clemson University research scientist Brian Ward from teeing off a recent presentation for the state’s watermelon growers with a question.

“Does anyone here grow organic?” he said.

As Ward expected, none of the 300 hands in the room went up.

Organic agriculture is on the rise nationwide, with 5 million acres of land now being farmed without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of certified organic farms shot up by an eye-popping 11 percent between 2016 and 2017 alone, bringing the total to 14,217.

Those farms are putting out broiler chickens, blueberries, tobacco and sweet potatoes, among other crops: Eggs and milk are now being produced so widely that it’s the rare supermarket that doesn’t stock organic versions of each. Yet a shopper prowling the aisles for an organic watermelon is likely to be left with a bare cart. Organic watermelons are essentially nonexistent.

Of the 128,000 U.S. acres devoted to watermelons, the USDA estimates .01 percent is being farmed organically.

He doesn’t know of another vegetable sector that has been so slow to adopt organic methods. But he does know three reasons why watermelon farmers have hung back: Powdery mildew, downy mildew and gummy stem blight. Watermelons are so susceptible to disease that prior to conducting field trials, even workers in Ward’s own lab didn’t believe a watermelon could survive a growing season without high-tech intervention.

Then they started spraying fields with sulfur, and went four seasons straight without any evidence of disease.

Ward’s research isn’t done: A federal grant will continue to support his growing organic watermelons on plots around the Charleston area. In the meantime, though, he has to prepare skeptical growers to heed the study’s results when they’re published.

'Something's got to kill us'

“You got to have chemicals these days,” said James B. Padgett, who grows Royal Sweets and Crimson Sweets on a 5-acre tract in Leesville.

Padgett was utterly unpersuaded by Ward’s plea for Watermelon Field Day attendees to consider the financial advantages of organic farming. Waving off concerns he’s heard about the potential health consequences of pesticide residue, he said, “America eats so much bad stuff. Something’s got to kill us.”

For the record, Ward didn’t make the case that watermelon farmers have a special obligation to look out for American eaters’ health. While studies show organic produce has lower pesticide levels, researchers haven’t concluded how much of a risk the pesticide residue in conventional produce poses to healthy people. And science hasn’t yet found that organic fruits and vegetables have any significant nutritional edge over chemically treated crops. As Ward puts it, “there’s a lot of hearsay.”

What is clear, though, is that organic agriculture is the best strategy for keeping soil fertile over time; promoting biodiversity and reducing the risk of water pollution. Those things align perfectly with Clemson University’s charge to support South Carolina’s agriculture industry.

Still, Ward didn’t refer to sustainability in his short address, which preceded a talk on herbicides at the 16th annual watermelon event hosted by Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center, and followed an impassioned reminder that growers are now required by the federal government to take a food safety class.

There’s a fortune to be found in organic watermelons, he said: Conventional melons sell for 12 cents a pound, while organic watermelons command about 50 cents a pound.

“So you’re talking about a super increase,” Ward said, citing the example of one South Carolina grower who had no trouble unloading his small harvest of organic watermelons to Earth Fare for a price far in excess of what other supermarkets pay for conventional melons. “You could make a heck of a lot more money.”

The next big thing

Despite Field Day attendees’ lack of enthusiasm for converting to organic production, they were highly invested in sampling the more than 80 melon strains grown at the Research Center. The main event at Field Day is the try-and-take portion, during which attendees have nearly an hour to wander through the center’s demonstration field. Armed with pocket knives, they’re welcome to cut into any melons they see, and haul out as many melons as they can carry.

“If I knew they were going to give them away, I would have brought my pickup,” grumbled one first-time participant standing around vines of Delightful, a honeydew that received high marks from tasters.

Jim Young of Leesville five years ago started attending Watermelon Field Day because he ran a farm-and-garden store and wanted to stay abreast of seed trends. He’s since given up the job but still comes to collect melons for his grandchildren. Asked if it was fun to gather free watermelon, Young shook his head.

“This is funded by the government,” he said. “You’re not stealing: You paid for it.”

Tax money is behind Watermelon Field Day, but it’s not a purely public enterprise: The demonstration field is put together specifically for the event as a sort of showroom for seed companies. Clemson University vegetable specialist Gilbert Miller, who created the event, urges company reps to stand alongside their watermelons so growers can ask them how long it takes the Charismatic or Bottle Rocket to reach maturity, or about the sugar content of a Road Trip or Troubadour.

Miller’s favorite watermelon is the Obsession, which Syngenta is phasing out because its skin is too uniformly green.

“Consumers want more stripes,” he said.

Miller has stockpiled Obsession seeds so he can keep drinking its crushed juice in the morning, and freezing its flesh for off-season snacks.

“Between organic watermelons and conventional watermelons, I don’t think you’re going to find much difference in quality,” he said, reflecting on all of the flavors now available in the sun-baked field. Still, he considers Ward’s sulfur spray “a breakthrough.”

“You’re not going to be able to feed the world, but the market is there,” he said.

Other than using Obsession watermelon juice to power his sprint triathlon workouts, Miller also turns to Obsession when he wants to grow a square melon, a process that involves a wooden molding box. Literally, it requires putting a round peg in a square hole. And if the watermelon industry can make that work, perhaps fitting together organic philosophies and the South’s favorite summertime treat isn’t quite so far-fetched.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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