Watermelon Breeding Program Transforms the Market

A dedicated team at Syngenta understands the needs of the watermelon market and delivers winner after delicious winner.
Growers who participate in the Syngenta Full Count program receive trays like this one, filled with ready-to-go watermelon transplants.
Growers who participate in the Syngenta Full Count program receive trays like this one, filled with ready-to-go watermelon transplants.

Consumers’ food habits evolve in a state of near-constant churn. Trends rocket to stardom, then fizzle in half that time. But eating watermelon? Surely there is only one way to do that: Slice it with a knife and put it in your mouth.

Well, it turns out a lot of people would prefer to skip the first half of that process, which helps to explain the immense popularity of the Crisp Delight watermelon—bred specifically to be processed and sold as spears inside a clear, clamshell container. Syngenta designed the firm-fleshed variety to withstand the rigors of packaging and shipping. Crisp Delight holds its water better than traditional varieties, resulting in fewer puddles at the bottom of the container.

“People like to buy what they are going to eat that day,” says Rich Chastain, a partner in distribution company Melon 1. The clear packaging also removes the mystery surrounding a standard, whole-watermelon purchase. “They see in the container exactly what they’re going to buy.”

“It’s really about listening to our customers and hearing what they are saying. Then we take what we have in our germplasm and convert it into something they can use.”

Julie Stocker
Based in southwest Florida, Melon 1 works with growers throughout the eastern U.S. as well as Central America. In a three-year period, the number of Crisp Delight acres that those growers plant annually has jumped more than 3,000 percent. And there is no indication that presliced watermelon is a fly-by-night trend. Chastain expects acreage to double within the next few years. Melon 1 already sells products to most of the supermarket chains on the East Coast, and Syngenta is with them almost every step of the way.

“We’ve always had a great working relationship with Syngenta,” Chastain says.

Melons for all Occasions

The success of Crisp Delight is the latest in a decades-plus run of success for the Syngenta watermelon program. Consider the following:

  • Fascination, introduced in 2011, is already one of the top Syngenta melon varieties sold worldwide. Growers love the marketable yield, medium-to-large fruit size and its resistance to Fusarium wilt race 1 and anthracnose race 1. Consumers prize this seedless melon’s size, which averages between 16 and 19 pounds, and its wonderful flavor. It’s an attractive melon, too: Fascination boasts a beautiful, striped exterior and deep, red flesh.
  • Sweet Dawn, introduced in 2016, is an early-maturing variety that produces consistent yields. This seedless variety matures in about 74 days, giving growers an early entry into the market. Sweet Dawn’s disease resistance package also features intermediate resistance to Fusarium wilt race 1 and anthracnose race 1. This fruit is in the hands of customers as early as possible, while delivering midsummer watermelon taste.

Advancements such as these are the direct result of Syngenta investing in its watermelon program, says Dean Liere, Syngenta regional portfolio manager for watermelons in North America and Latin America. This includes leveraging innovative science, such as marker-assisted breeding, together with seed production advancements.

“We have been able to create some unique genetic combinations that no one else can bring to market,” Liere says.

He remembers the first time he tasted a Fascination watermelon, during the trialing process. “It had the flavor you’d always go back to,” he says.

As all breeders will attest, a successful trial doesn’t always make for a successful product. However, in the case of this watermelon variety, growers started sending in positive reports almost immediately.

“Once we started planting acres and the growers started getting excited, it was exhilarating,” Liere says. “We knew we had a good variety, but we had no idea it was going to be this big.”

Focus on Science

As the success of Fascination proves, science is at the heart of modern watermelon production. Much of the Syngenta research takes place at two state-of-the-art facilities, located on opposite sides of the country.

The Woodland Research Station, near Sacramento, California, is home to the Global Cucurbit Center of Excellence, which enables Syngenta to place all of its North American cucurbit research and development (R&D) leadership under one roof. The company invested heavily in the facility to build additional greenhouses, specialized plant growth environments, an innovative plant pathology laboratory and expanded workspace for R&D activities.

The Naples Research Station in Florida lies just south of the frost line, which allows for two generations of most crops. It includes more than 100 open-field acres and contains more than 60,000 square feet of greenhouse space, as well as controlled growth environments and laboratories.

“Our leadership in the watermelon market owes a lot to the innovation that takes place at these research facilities,” says Jose Cabrera, Syngenta product manager for vegetable seeds in North America.

Market-Driven Solutions

Customers come in all varieties, from people in the supermarket checkout line to the farmers who place the plants in the ground. Syngenta develops its watermelons in response to the needs of those different groups. Crisp Delight, for instance, grew out of the desire “not to have a 14-pound watermelon taking up space in the refrigerator,” says Julie Stocker, North America cucurbit trialing lead at Syngenta.

“It’s really about listening to our customers and hearing what they are saying,” she adds. “Then we take what we have in our germplasm and convert it into something they can use.”

Dedicated @SyngentaUS team evaluates market needs to develop #watermelon market innovations.

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Another example is the Full Count® Plant Program, which came from the ideas of growers themselves. Launched in 2002, Full Count quickly established itself as the industry’s standard-bearer transplant program. Prior to Full Count, companies would provide seeds to growers. Most would germinate, but some would not. Growers had to order extra seed to compensate.

With Full Count, growers receive ready-to-go transplants, now with the option of pollinators and seedless plants sown in the same tray. The program removes the guesswork from the planting process and has been imitated by every other large-scale producer.

“The grower can go out in the field and plant and not worry about which tray is which,” Cabrera says. “It takes a lot of the headache, planning and logistics out of the grower’s equation.”

Which, in the end, makes sweet sense for everyone.