Bogue Sound Watermelon season begins

Winberry Farms in Cedar Point grows fresh Bogue Sound Watermelons and sells them at their barn on Cedar Point Boulevard. (Dylan Ray photo)

At 76-years-old, David Winberry, except for a few years he spent in service to his country in the Coast Guard, has been around Bogue Sound Watermelons all his life.

In fact, for many years now, he’s been around them almost every day of his life, from March through late September or early October.

He has 12 acres of the delectable melons on his Winberry Farms spread in Cedar Point. There are 1,000 plants per acre, and each plant yields an average of 1.5 melons.

That’s 18,000 of the sweetest, juiciest melons known to man, a fruit so prized that Mr. Winberry remembers tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer hauling them north from Cedar Point to Philadelphia and New York City, where, he says, Bogue Sound melons were famous, and still might be.

“I’ve also been told that, before my time, they used to barge them to New York,” Mr. Winberry said in a recent interview at Winberry Farms’ retail outlet at 1006 Cedar Point Blvd.

What makes the Bogue Sound melon such a prized fruit?

That would be the soil. It’s sandy along Bogue Sound, and it drains well, and apparently, that soil has all the other right things, in the right balance, to make watermelons like none other.

Then there’s that salt air and lots of sunshine. Together, those things produce an unparalleled sweetness and a brighter red color that few can resist.

“There are other good watermelons, but none like these,” said Lisbet Marquez, a recent Croatan High School graduate who has worked at the Winberry Farms stand for three years and enjoys hefting the heavy melons around. She’s going to college for physical therapy. This stuff is good training.

She and Mr. Winberry are pretty sure they could pick a Bogue Sound melon almost every time in a blindfolded taste-test.

So is Lisa Wright, who, after a brief Carteret County vacation, was leaving the stand Wednesday with a couple of melons to take home to Virginia.

“It’s the taste of summer,” she said. “There are watermelons, and then there are Bogue Sound Watermelons. We always eat a few during the time we’re here, then take a couple back home.”

The family reluctantly shares them, but only to those who “deserve them,” she quipped.

This year, Mr. Winberry said, was a great year, with weather that was hot enough, and with just enough rain.

“They are above average this year, I’d say,” the farmer said. And an average Bogue Sound Watermelon is, well, you know, way above the average melon, even if it’s below average for a Bogue Sound melon.

It’s not at all unusual for vacationers to take eight, 10, even 12 Bogue Sound Watermelons home, filling every nook and cranny that’s not crammed with luggage and human bodies, Mr. Winberry said. Many of those tourists, he and wife, Sarah, said, say they’ve promised them to friends back home.

“We have a good steady customer base of locals, but the tourists are where we make the money now,” Mr. Winberry said.

Years ago, folks would pull up to the farm in pickup trucks, buy a load and then re-sell them along the roadsides, with a decent markup.

That doesn’t happen much anymore, ‘cause those guys have mostly passed away, but Mr. Winberry said he does sell excess melons to area stores, and to the big farmers’ market in Raleigh.

To keep up with demand, Mr. Winberry plants in four stages, so he has the prized fruit from July through early October.

“We start the seeds in the greenhouse, starting around March 10,” he said. The goal is to have the first crop available for the melon-heads by July 4, the peak of tourist season.

“We made it this year, but just barely,” he said. “I think it was July 2 or 3. It’s been as late as July 10. It depends on the weather. If you have some cold weather, it takes a little longer.”

It simply can’t be too hot – at least in Mr. Winberry’s long memory – for Bogue Sound Watermelons to grow successfully.

“They have very deep tap roots; I’ve dug them up and seen them as long as 2 feet,” he said. “They will find the moisture. But they do need some rain, especially at first, unless you irrigate.”

Mr. Winberry, unlike many melon farmers, irrigates his fields. It’s a way to optimize things, to not be so dependent upon the whims of Mother Nature.

He also eschews planting them on plastic, as some now do. The plastic helps with pests and weeds, but Mr. Winberry, who is also a Cedar Point town commissioner, says he and his employees don’t mind work.

It’s like any other crop, he said, a constant battle against things that can ruin your year. But he thinks melons are better when grown the old-fashioned way.

Winberry Farms grows and sells a variety of Bogue Sound Watermelons, ranging from the traditional oblong ones to rounder “personal” melons. Some are seedless, and those have taken the lead in sales in recent years. Probably a modern thing; no mess. But there’s also no seed-spitting, which anyone of a certain age can tell you was a fine way to annoy the parents at a summer picnic with the fastidious relatives.

Still, Mr. Winberry gets it, and knows what people wants, and endeavors to give it to them. Regular, oblong, heavy seeded watermelons sell for $8, while the seedless ones go for $7. The “personal” water melons go for $3.50.

Mr. Winberry says that the Bogue Sound melon isn’t a variety, despite a popular misconception. It’s more of a brand. You can plant any number of melons in Bogue Sound soil and it will become a Bogue Sound melon.

Although Mr. Winberry said Bogue Sound Watermelon territory these days, and for as long as he can remember, has been from Cedar Point east to the Ocean community between Cape Carteret and Morehead City, those in the know have told him the first were grown along Queens Creek, in the unincorporated township of Hubert, west of Swansboro. Queens Creek is a tributary of Bogue Sound.

He remembers, decades ago, selling them, and other produce on the “honor system,” putting a bunch of stuff out in front of his mother’s house, with a box for the cash.

“You’d come home (he worked as a fireman for the Marine Corps) and there’d be a box of money.”

Although he knew they were special, he never thought Bogue Sound Watermelons would be such a big thing.

In his early days, farming part-time while working as a fireman, tobacco was the big crop. Cedar Point was all farmland then, and melons were a secondary crop.

Now, while tomatoes and sweet corn and cantaloupes are big, it’s the melon that’s kindest to him in the summer, because it brings a better price.

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