Kansas farm grows watermelons amid corn and milo season

Amy Bickel
The Hutchinson News
From July through September, the  DeVore Farms family and their employees work to harvest 200 acres of melons near St. John, Kansas.

ST. JOHN, Kan. (AP) - In a large field of watermelons, Renae Doggett listens.

Here in Stafford County, where the soil is sandy, there is one sound that matters. It's hard for her to explain it - the hollow tone she's discerning with every thump.

It is the sound of a sweet, ripe watermelon ready for shipment to Dillons stores and vendors across the region.

"You get your ear trained to know the right sound," said Doggett as she watched workers plucking the fruit from the vines on an August morning, and then laughed. "You must have to have an ear for it. If you stand out here on your head long enough, you figure it out, you know what looks ripe."

Amid the county's conventional crop fields of corn and milo, it's watermelon and cantaloupe season at DeVore Farms near St. John.

From July through September, the family and their employees work to harvest 200 acres of melons — loading up trailers that are taken back to the farm, sorted onto semitrailers and shipped to the Dillons warehouse in Hutchinson.

They have pumpkins, too — which are picked through the autumn.

This is Doggett's family farm — one that includes wheat and cattle and something a little less traditional for the Kansas plains — produce. She and her brother Rus DeVore are fourth generation Stafford County watermelon growers.

Except for a time in the 1970s, this family tradition has been ongoing since Doggett's great-grandfather, Eugene Sayler, and grandfather, Gilbert Sayler, started hauling watermelons to small-town groceries in the 1930s.

"They did that for a living because there was nothing else to do to make a living," Doggett's mother, Patricia DeVore, 81, said of the Great Depression.

Rus said his grandfather was making one of his first trips to Great Bend with a horse and wagon when he realized he needed a different mode of transportation if he was going to be successful — a car to deliver melons.

"All he had was a buckboard. With the buckboard, by the time he got to Great Bend, he would have had mush," Rus said. "So he went to the Chevy dealer and found a car for $15, and they let him have it with no money down. He told them he'd pay for it the next day. So he brought the car home, loaded it up with watermelons, went to Great Bend and sold them door-to-door and paid for the car."

Good sand makes a good watermelon, said Patricia.

That would make Stafford County a produce haven, it seems. There are a few others growers in the county who take advantage of the soil. Some sell to retailers, others to farmers markets.

The DeVore operation spans more than 80 years.

Patricia said she and her husband, Ronnie, married and returned to her family's farm around 1954. At that time, they went into farming and ranching with her father and her brother, Adrian Sayler.

Part of the business was the melon operation.

"My first memory as a child was having a hoe in my hand and hoeing cantaloupe over north of the trees with my dad and my brother," Rus told The Hutchinson News.

The family sold to several grocers, including Dillons. Then, for a time, when the partnership dissolved in the 1970s, the DeVore family stopped growing produce.
But 1980, when Doggett was 16 years old, the family decided to slowly get back into the business.

"That was the only thing making money," said Patricia.

It isn't an easy business, Doggett said. It's hard work. You can have all kinds of problems growing and harvesting the crop. Five years ago a hailstorm went through and took out their entire melon crop.

Also, most of the work is done by hand. Watermelon and cantaloupe seeds are started in the greenhouse each spring. Workers sit on a three-row transplanter and put the plants into the ground.

Doggett spends her evenings spraying for insects, when the blooms are closed.
Patricia recalled how she and her husband would haul a wheat truck full of watermelons to Dillons, and then unload them one at a time. Now, they are shipped in large cardboard boxes by semi.

"Then Dillons got bigger, and we got bigger," Patricia said.

But while the family had their foot in the door with Dillons, it wasn't a full-time commitment until the 1990s, Rus said.

"We used to do about 20 acres of melons back before Dillons, now we do 200," he said, adding Dillons, "has increased our business tenfold."

Dillons is about 99 percent of their business.

Dillons spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie said the grocer has partnered with local growers for many generations.

"We've always shared local foods, and appreciate the fact our customers ask for many of these items by name - especially produce from DeVore Farms," she said. "We not only love the idea of sharing farm-fresh food with our Dillons customers but also we value doing business with our neighbors and supporting the communities we call home."

The goal is to provide customers with the ripest, just-picked fruits and vegetables, she said.

"For example, watermelons from DeVore Farms are at their peak for sweetness and ruby-red color, and we have plenty available at Dillons," Lowrie said. "The latest delivery of melons from DeVore Farms are simply the best of the season. In fact, 100 percent of the watermelons available at Dillons today were locally grown from DeVore Farms and Depot Market in Kansas."

She added that DeVore's pumpkins and decorative gourds would be available beginning Sept. 8.

Patricia DeVore gets calls a few times a week from folks who pick up a melon at Dillons and see the DeVore Farms sticker.

"I'll have people call me clear from somewhere and say 'I just had one of your watermelons today, it was wonderful, "' Patricia said. "I had a guy from Hays or somewhere, he said 'I have never eaten one like this in my life. It was so good.' He said don't quit. It makes you feel good."

The farm has come a long way from a guy peddling produce in the 1930s. On this day, two trucks were heading out with roughly 2,400 melons, Doggett estimated.

It's challenging, but it has been rewarding, said Rus.

"It's not something everyone else does like corn and wheat," he said. "It is nice to have the recognition occasionally that we are out here doing something a little bit different. We can't take these watermelons and load them on a truck and take them to the elevator. Every one of them we have to sell. We have to find a market for them."

It's been a good way to keep the family together, said Patricia.

"Yes, it gets kind of hairy sometimes," she said. "But it is a way to keep the grandkids and even the great-grandkids on the farm. It means something to them, not just us. Farming is a good life, it isn't an easy life but we wouldn't want to do anything else."