Keep Reading. Subscribe Today.

Stay connected with our community and support nationally-acclaimed local news coverage. Sign up for a subscription today. Cancel anytime.

  • Already a subscriber?

National article puts Sumter watermelon farmer in pinch

Timing of story and rough weather season lead to race to have just enough melons

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 8/24/19

A business owner never quite knows how the news spotlight will affect his or her business.

Sumter heirloom farmer Nat Bradford can attest to that.

Bradford operates Bradford Family Farm on DuBose Siding Road in the northern part of Sumter …

This item is available in full to subscribers

National article puts Sumter watermelon farmer in pinch

Timing of story and rough weather season lead to race to have just enough melons

Posted

A business owner never quite knows how the news spotlight will affect his or her business.

Sumter heirloom farmer Nat Bradford can attest to that.

Bradford operates Bradford Family Farm on DuBose Siding Road in the northern part of Sumter County and is most known for his oblong, thick-rined watermelons, sold through his Bradford Watermelon Co.

Through the years, the heirloom Bradford Watermelon - known for its sweet taste and delicate texture - has been featured in national articles several times with mixed success.

A 2015 NPR article on his watermelon seeds, though, caught his business off guard, crashed his website in 20 minutes and sold out the seeds in 10 days, Bradford said.

When he found out he was going to be featured on CBS Sunday Morning in spring 2017, he said he was advised to increase his bandwidth and have plenty of product ready to go.

Bradford said he went "full bore" ahead and spent all winter getting ready.

"We prepared for months getting ready for that one," Bradford said, "and it turned out to be just be a flash in the pan. It was not what we had geared up for. I guess you never know what that kind of stuff is going to do."

So, when he found out his sweet melons were going to be featured in Southern Living magazine earlier this year, he decided he was going to take it in stride.

"With the Southern Living, we were like, 'OK, we're not going to go crazy again and work ourselves silly because it is what it is,'" Bradford said.

But, he said, with the July publication of the multi-page watermelon article in the magazine coming out right as he was doing pre-sales online a few weeks before the harvest, Bradford got caught off guard again.

He said he usually cuts off pre-orders at 500 fresh market melons because he doesn't want to run out if there is bad weather. Before he knew it, pre-sales on the internet were 900-plus from all across the South. The price is $20 per watermelon.

"It just snuck up on us," Bradford said. "We monitor the website every couple of days, and it never really had ever spiked liked that so fast. It turned out to be like the NPR piece."

In a normal year, he said, he would have been fine with those pre-orders, but this year was different.

A hot May in Sumter hurt germination. Then the area had heavy rain at the harvest in early August. Bradford said watermelons are susceptible to splits when there is above-average rain.

The result: yield loss and less melons.

In a really good year, Bradford said, the farm produces 1,200 to 1,500 fresh market melons. This year, he had just enough.

"It ended up kind of putting us in a situation where we were chewing our fingernails down, hoping we had enough watermelons in the field," he said, "but we did. We just made it."

The last pre-order that came to town to pick up the product last weekend was a couple that flew into the Sumter County Airport from Texas to pick up one $20 watermelon, he said.

Bradford said he worries the most about the quality of his melons from people coming from out of state. He wants them to enjoy the total experience, he said.

Bradford said he thinks it turned out fine, though.

"I haven't heard anything bad back," he said, "so no news is good news."

An article spanning the South seems like it was good news in the end, too.