CULLMAN COUNTY, Ala. - A whopper of a watermelon weighed in as the new state champ during a growing competition over the weekend.
Daniel White set an Alabama record with his 288-pound watermelon that he weighed in at the 2018 Pumpkin and Watermelon Weigh-Off at Bear Wallow Farm in Nancy, Ky.
White grows the melons on his 30-acre farm in Battleground, Ala., near the Cullman-Morgan county line. His record-breaker, named Don, was one of four giant melons he has been working on since April. He also has Harold, which weighed 255 pounds and came in fifth at the weigh-off. Phil is still on the vine and will probably weigh about 230 pounds when he's done, and Jimmy is still growing.
He named them after the country group the Statler Brothers. Instead of playing solitaire with a deck of fifty-one, White spends his free time tracking their progress on a size and weight chart.
"It's easier to keep up with the melons' daily statistics if they're named," he said. "Plus, it adds a little fun to it."
White, who also raises cattle on his farm, became fascinated with giant produce as a kid, when his great-aunt and uncle would grow big watermelons for county fairs.
"When you're a kid, a 100-pound watermelon looks like a pickup truck," he said.
He became curious about what it took to grow them in 2013. He ordered some seeds online from Arkansas and got started growing. As he traveled to different competitions, he would trade seeds with other growers. This season, most of the seeds he planted were his own.
But as you might imagine, there's more to growing a 288-pound watermelon than planting a seed in the ground and watering it.
"You're not really competing against each other," White said of the competitions he enters."You're competing against Mother Nature more than anything."
The soil is the key to getting started. White prepares the ground by planting something hardy during cold weather season, like mustard greens. In the spring he will till it into the soil, and he'll get some compost to add to the mix. He said he stays away from synthetic fertilizers.
White says he starts the seeds in his house in April and then transfers them outside. He pollinates them by hand. Once the vine bears fruit, he looks for the melon that has the size and shape he's going for.
"You kind of look at certain areas on the plant where you might want it to be," White said. "The shape of the melon -- you can kind of tell when they're small."
Once one is chosen, the other melons get culled from the vine, so all of the vine's resources are dedicated to one. White may check the vines multiple times a day, walking on boards raised above the vines so nothing gets damaged.
Eventually the bigger watermelons get moved to a rack to prevent them from rotting on the bottom, and they'll get their own little shade to keep them out of direct sunlight.
White says he spends about two hours a day in the garden during the growing season, which runs through mid-October. It's a lot of work on top of a full-time job and raising his cattle, and the prize money usually isn't much. But for him, it's watching something grow from the size of a pea to a pro wrestler that keeps him going. He's even started branching out into growing giant cabbages.
"It's just fascinating to watch the progression of it," he said.
And in case you're wondering how they taste, White doesn't eat his because some of the chemicals he uses are approved for shrubs or other crops, but not specifically for watermelons. He says they smell good, but he usually just takes the seeds and leaves the rest for the livestock.
"They're typically overripe by the time I cut them," he said. "But the cows enjoy them."