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"MelonMan" Gets Ripe Melons to Market

By Don Comis
November 26, 2002

If you think sniffing a few cantaloupes to judge ripeness is a pain, try judging the ripeness of thousands of them.

That's what people like David LaGrange, vice president and farm manager of Starr Produce Company in Rio Grande City, Texas, have to do. They not only have to judge the ripeness of many different cantaloupe varieties, they have to predict it months before they've even planted the seeds. LaGrange signs buyer contracts far ahead of harvest.

The only way LaGrange and others can predict accurately is with the help of a computer prediction model called MelonMan. Jeff Baker, originally with Texas A&M University and now a plant physiologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md., developed the model.

MelonMan predicts the development of melons based on scientific knowledge of how melons grow. For each new variety, LaGrange initially records simple measurements such as the rate at which the cantaloupe vine grows new leaf nodes in his soils. After that, all the model needs to know is the weather, and field weather stations provide that.

In 1998, LaGrange grew up to 12 different kinds of cantaloupes, each with their own harvest dates. That was when he really appreciated having help predicting those dates.

He used MelonMan to narrow his numerous varieties down to the three most predictable ones. With these cantaloupes and one honeydew variety, he no longer has to use the computer model regularly--but he made his operation much more profitable with its help, and he has it ready whenever he wants to add another variety.

So the next time you get irritated sniffing melons, just think about all the hassles people like LaGrange have to go through to get that deliciously ripe melon to your plate, even with MelonMan's help.

More information on the research appears in the November 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.