When you start seeing watermelon stands on the side of the road, that’s the time Marty Graham and Graham Farms will be ramping up for big business.
The Graham family owns cattle and citrus, but most of what they do is raise and broker the sale of watermelons - that sweet, juicy fruit that signals summertime.
Graham was born and raised in Wauchula in a tobacco farming family. “We accidentally got started in watermelons after we stopped tobacco,” the 70-year-old said. Virgin land in Florida was a great place to raise tobacco seedlings when diseases were plaguing tobacco farms up north, he explained. But around 1980, new chemical treatments came out that solved that problem, and the industry declined in Florida.
Around 1982, Graham remembered being in a gas station when a man with a semi truck approached him asking where he could pick up a load of watermelons. Graham led the man to a place he knew of and helped him with the load. Not long after, the same man called him up and said he was sending two more trucks down. He offered to pay Graham $200 each to load them up.
“That first year I loaded about 40 loads. Now we do about 2,000 loads a year,” the soft-spoken man remarked.
Graham Farms not only brokers the sale of watermelons across eastern North America, but raises about 400 acres of melons of their own in Highlands, Hardee and Polk counties.
At an Avon Park packinghouse, Graham watched as a semi was loaded with fruit bound for Canada. We do about three loads a day to Canada and about five to six loads a day to New York, he said. It’s those Florida melons that signify summer is on its way to the folks up north, Graham confirmed.
After the harvesting is done in Florida, about the first week of June, Graham and his crew will start their summer migration northward. They’ll assist in the harvesting and distributing of about 800 acres’ worth of watermelons in Georgia through mid-July, then the staff will split up, some staying to finish up work in Georgia, some moving on to North Carolina, some to Maryland and some to Indiana.
Graham himself takes a little tour across all the states where they have growers. They make sure there is a family member present at each packinghouse to ensure the job is done right and the quality of the product meets the standards Graham Farms has developed over the years.
By September first, the big summer rush will be over and there will be a lull before they start to prepare the land in the fall for a February planting. That’s when Graham looks forward to his favorite past time - hunting.
But while he’s out bagging deer and turkeys, there are plenty of other people to handle the family-owned and family-run business. Marty’s wife, Gayle Graham and their daughter Lynn Tomblin handle the bookkeeping. Grandson Jared Tomblin farms and works the packinghouses. Grandson Chris Blalock is the I.T. specialist. Cousin Mark Bryan helps Marty with operations and sales; nephew Binky Graham is in production; and son-in-law Steve Tomblin works in farm management and shipping.
And while they aren’t family members, Graham said he couldn’t get along without Travis Wise, who handles the harvesting and James Hilton in production.
The biggest challenge of being a watermelon farmer? Graham and Bryan agreed that it’s the fact that not only do the brokers themselves need to migrate, the plants do, too. Due to the soilborne disease fusarium wilt, watermelons can only be planted on the same field every 10 years. That means it takes a lot of land to grow 400 acres of watermelons every year.
Something that’s gotten easier over the years, however, is the advent and popularity of seedless watermelons. Besides the obvious benefit of less seed-spitting and a better refrigerator fit for consumers, the seedless varieties of melon have a longer shelf life and bruise less easily - benefits for farmers and distributors like the Grahams.
While many people his age would be retired, Graham said he still enjoys the seven-day-a-week job that is watermelon brokering over the summer. “Those customers that I sell to, some of them I’ve been selling to for 25 or 30 years. I’ve become friends with them. I look forward to business every year.”