07/02/04 — State hopes sprite melon will be one alternative to tobacco

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State hopes sprite melon will be one alternative to tobacco

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on July 2, 2004 1:56 PM

Some farmers across the state, including in Wayne County, are venturing into producing a sweet specialty crop called sprite melons.

The melons are designed to be an alternative cash crop to tobacco.

A farmer in Wayne County, Jacob Odom, has begun harvesting the small yellow melon at his farm at Pricetown off N.C. 111. He is one of several sprite melon farmers in Wayne and Lenoir counties.

The melons are bright yellow and about the size of a grapefruit. The inside of the melon has seeds in the center, similar to a cantaloupe. But the inside is white.

It has a crisp, fresh and sweet taste. Bill Jester, an extension specialist in Wayne and Lenoir counties, said many people like it because it has a real fruity, pear-like flavor.

He said the melons were developed as part of the state Specialty Crops Program, which was funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation. The foundation uses money from the state's settlement with tobacco companies to give grants to help tobacco-dependent communities.

The sprite melon project is being conducted through a partnership between the state Department of Agriculture and N.C. State University.

Jester said the melon was released to growers about four or five years ago. There are around 700 acres of the crop statewide, and farmers make about $7,000 and $8,000 per acre.

Jester said the melon was tested by a company in 1997, but it was going to do away with the variety. More research was done, and producers now know more about when to grow and harvest it. He said the melons have to be harvested at the right time, because they taste like a cucumber if they are harvested late.

He said many are shipped out west where there is a better market. It is a high-value niche product that is not familiar to most people in North Carolina. The producers in Wayne and Lenoir counties sell them to companies that deal with specialty produce, added Jester.