The Sweetest Watermelon of the South
By Nat Bradford, as told to Slow Food USA
My great-grandfather’s name was Chief Bradford, and he had a knack for breeding and growing watermelons. My grandfather grew them, my father grew them, then my brothers and I grew them.
We’ve narrowed our understanding of what watermelon is to this Jolly Rancher flavor, but there’s as much different flavor potential in watermelon as there is in tomatoes. The Bradford watermelon is very, very sweet. But beyond that, there’s a texture and a flavor that I’ve never experienced in any other melon. Store-bought melons are bred for shipping. The texture is really crisp. Ours aren’t as tough—you touch it with a knife and the flesh just pops open. It’s succulent. It’s not crunchy, but it’s not soft and mushy. It’s in that perfect sweet spot: firm, succulent, tender, juicy. The skin is paper thin, and the rind is like the best cucumber you’ve ever eaten. You can pickle it or eat it raw with a little salt.
In the late ‘90s, I was doing an internship at Longwood Gardens and researching the melon when I came across a book: Field and Garden Vegetables of America from 1865. It was a food critic’s top choice of produce in the US. I flipped to the watermelon section, and my eyes fell on Bradford watermelon. The description fit the bill of my family’s plant. I needed someone to verify that this was our watermelon, but I couldn’t find that information.
I moved on, started a landscape practice, started a family. I didn’t think about it much. But in 2012, I was worn out from my practice. I always wanted to farm and attended a conference, where I was reenergized by folks who were interested in heirloom crops and organic farming.
I got on Google and started researching the “Bradford watermelon” that I found years earlier. I found Dr. David Shields’ website on American Heritage Vegetables that referenced the same 1865 book. I sent him an email — “Can you please confirm that these are one and the same watermelon?” The next morning, he fired back — “Oh my gosh, I’ve been looking for this watermelon for a decade.” Of all watermelons, this is the one he’d want to bring back, he told me. And I’m a sixth generation grower of it. The seeds were preserved in our family, growing in small patches on the same family land. It’s the third-oldest watermelon variety in the US. and was the most sought-after variety of the 1800s.
That opened the door for me to get into agriculture. In the 1990s, the timing wouldn’t have worked. But recently, there was a swell of interest in rethinking agriculture. And this watermelon is part of that. Its strength is contained in the seed itself, and it’s not a GMO crop. It’s very specific to the land it’s grown on.
In 2013, South Carolina had a cold, wet summer. We barely reached 80 degrees, and it rained constantly. Governor Nikki Haley declared a federal disaster on melon crops. We worried about production, but ended up with over 100% yield, which is more than one fruit per vine. That’s because we go from 12 seeds per hill, then cull and pinch down to two. So by the end, those two vines have been selected as the best survivors of a cold, wet summer. Then we save seeds from the top 2% of the crop. Now compound that process over 175 plant generations. You have a resilient, tough crop that’s the best performer, gives the best flavor from that soil. And if we have another cold, wet summer 25 years from now, that genetic trait will express itself.
Creating a Bond
I think farming is primal. I really do. By growing up with this watermelon, I had an initial connection. I think this term terroir applies. Once a plant has grown in a place for so long, the soil and microbes can turn certain traits on and off in the plant. The soil forms a bond to the seed. It becomes connected to that place.
It’s the same with society and people. Our family, since the mid 1700s, have raised our kids, our cattle and these plants. This land was the building block and knit together our DNA. And now this watermelon is pulling back family spread out over the country. When you labor over your food, it creates a bond.
Telling the Story at Slow Food Nations
I’ve shared my story with folks who never contemplated agriculture, and it makes an impact. I was so energized at that sustainable ag conference, it made me regroup and change course. I want to share this story as encouragement.
But for me, too — I need that encouragement, to be around positive energy. I’m a little farm surrounded by modern agriculture. It’s like David and Goliath, like the big farmers are waiting to see if I’m going to fail. They’ve helped me a lot, but I have to prove this works. I have to make it before I have any weight. I’m not at the level where I can compete with the big boys.
When more folks come together and share ideas, it adds fuel to the flame. It takes grassroots effort to build that flame, especially when there’s so much opposition with much deeper pockets. Being part of a movement, for me, is an encouragement to stay with it. It’s nice to be incorporated into a flock somewhere.