The first few Ontario watermelons have only just started to ripen and hit the stands, but Leamington farmer Dave Dyck said the season is already off to a good start.
Dyck knows the crop well — he's been growing the fruit in southwestern Ontario for more than 20 years.
"It is a decent crop this year I do believe. We just started getting into them, but I think there's quite a few of them in the patch, so quite pleased with them."
Dyck, who is considered a small watermelon grower, planted a little over 1.5 hectares of watermelons and bush melons this year — totalling about 25,000 crops. He also grows other crops, including corn and tomatoes, and sells them from his roadside stand, Dave & Anna's Gourmet Sweet Corn and More.
A combination of good weather and pollination seems to have helped the watermelon crop thrive this year, Dyck said.
"We need heat, we need warm nights. As the watermelon sets, they like to see the temperatures staying up overnight. The humidity also helps," Dyck said, adding there shouldn't be too much humidity.
Challenges with growing Canadian watermelons
According to the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association (OFVGA), an estimated 809 hectares of watermelon plants are grown each year in southwestern Ontario. Many growers will then ship their produce across the province and the country, with some sending them into the United States.
Since watermelon plants require heat to ripen and become sweet, the OFVGA said a large majority of Canadian watermelons are grown in southern Ontario because of the weather.
Other provinces that grow the fruit include Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba.
"It's a bit of a niche market," said Mike Chromczak, a farmer and director at OFVGA. "Watermelons are very challenging to grow this side of the border. It's a desert plant used to growing in the southern states and from the Middle East originally.
"Really, it's easy to say, we have no business growing them here in Ontario."
And yet, about a dozen or so farmers in the province make watermelon growing part of their business.
Some challenges with growing the crop, according to Chromczak, include the high cost of production, from growing the seed to preparing the field.
Since watermelons are also large and bulky, Chromczak said a lot of workers are often needed to harvest them.
He also added they are sensitive to the weather and need a lot of water, as well as dry, hot temperatures, even overnight. If temperatures cool off into the evening, Chromczak said this can easily hurt the crop.
And according to Dyck, disease is another common issue that can quickly wipe out a patch.
This year, Chromcazk said there are some crop challenges in the United States, which means there might be fewer watermelons coming into Canada, and that could open up the market for local growers.
But he said it's still early in the season.
Despite the risks of watermelon growing, it's something Dyck continues to do every year.
"I like to see that as soon as you bring them out people, small kids come to the stand and they say, 'Oh watermelon, watermelon.' There is no other thing they're after as much as watermelons," he said.
"Some people, they can't wait until we bring our fresh watermelons out."
Here's how to pick the right watermelon
When it comes to picking the right watermelon, Dyck said it's a combination of factors.
First off, the farmers that harvest the fruit need to ensure they're picking it when it's ripe. He said a good indicator is when the vine that the watermelon stem attaches to is dried out.
He said it's also a good sign when a watermelon has a dark yellow patch on its bottom, as that means it will be ripe and red inside.
As for people who are picking them up at a grocery store or roadside stand, Dyck said it's not a bad idea to give them a knock.
"If you can hear that kind of hollow sound, that means that is a solid watermelon," he said.
"They definitely got to be heavy. They definitely got to be nice and solid."