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Millions of melons mean lots of work

Submitted Photo

At his roadside stand along U.S 61, George Schmidt stands by a display of the melonms that have made Muscatine famous.

MUSCATINE -- George Schmidt can harvest more melons in one day than most people eat in a lifetime.

Mr. Schmidt is just one melon grower in Muscatine, a city famous for the juicy cantaloupe grown in its sandy soil. During peak season, Mr. Schmidt and his workers pile as many as 5,000 melons onto their trucks each day to distribute to buyers across the Midwest.

Of course, many of those melons -- about 60 percent -- go to Schmidt's Market, the oldest roadside fruit-and-vegetable stand in Iowa. Mr. Schmidt's parents opened the airy, wooden building in 1936.

``We have people in their 40s who, as a child, would stop at those markets,'' said Mary Anne Schmidt, Mr. Schmidt's wife. ``It's as much for tradition as it is for the melons.''

Car after car slows down and stops, and people get out to look at the home-grown fruits and vegetables. However, very few customers know how much work it takes to grow a cantaloupe, the Schmidts said.

They plant the first crop in their greenhouse during April. Around May 10, when they're sure the ground will not freeze again, they transplant the partially developed plants to the fields. Cantaloupe would not be ripe until later in the summer if started in the field, the Schmidts said.

Later, workers plant cantaloupe in the field as well, staggering plantings so some are always ready.

From mid-July to early September, the Schmidts' 20 workers pick cantaloupe early in the morning to get them out of the heat. By 9 a.m. they load the melons onto trucks. However, the cantaloupe are ready only after many weeks of hoeing and spraying.

Deciding when to sell cantaloupe, and how many to sell, requires careful monitoring of sales records and weather, Mr. Schmidt said.

``That's the biggest thing, predicting when they'll be ready, when they'll peak and how many you can sell,'' he said. ``A buyer will call and you have to say to yourself, `What's the weather forecast? Is it going to be 90 or 79?`|''

Although farmers always have hoped for good weather, technology has changed melon-growing since the days when Mr. Schmidt's parents ran the farm. Last year the Schmidts tried a new technique, planting melons in layers of plastic to suppress weeds and maintain moisture.

As farming technology evolves and each farmer can produce more melons, more and more growers are going out of business. The 30 growers in Muscatine a couple of decades ago have dwindled to just 10 or 12 today, the Schmidts said.

During his childhood, ``Everyone had a little market and tried to sell in front of their place,'' Mr. Schmidt said.

Submitted Photo

Schmidt's Market, along with several others, is along U.S. 61, several miles south of Muscatine's main strip of gas stations and discount stores.

However, because the highway will be expanded in the next several years, some of those markets are moving to side streets. When the Schmidts reopen this year, several blocks from their old location, they plan to incorporate a restaurant that serves salads, sandwiches and hamburgers, made with their home-grown goods.

The Schmidts said they're confident there will be enough customers for their business addition. The cantaloupe keep people coming back.

``The reason they get out of the car is the cantaloupe,'' Ms. Schmidt said. ``In October, we can have frost on the pumpkins and you can see your breath, and they still want to know if we have any cantaloupe.''

-- By Laura Oppenheimer (January 22, 1998)

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