MUSCATINE, Iowa — Muscatine has sported the nickname "Melon City" just as much as "Pearl City." In central Muscatine, there are two areas known as the Melon City and the Pearl City cultural districts.
The pearl button industry faded away during the last century, but what about the current status of Muscatine Melons? Can these still be found around Muscatine and the Muscatine/Louisa County area?
The answer to that is apparently so, but it's harder than it used to be, and fewer local farmers are involved in producing them.
"There's not as many people involved as there used to be," said Steve Krueger, manager of Krueger's Market in Letts.
Muscatine Melons belong to what is known as the muskmelon family. They are recognized by their prominent ridges and their web-like skin.
Muscatine Melons are typically described as those that are either grown in Muscatine County, or, more specifically, those grown in the Muscatine Island area, a section of ground south of Muscatine, situated between Muscatine Slough and the Mississippi River, and extending down around the Muscatine/Louisa county line.
Local farmers, such as George Taylor and his son Jake, who help run Taylor Market, 2637 Stewart Road, say the Muscatine Island area is ideal for growing melons because the sandy soil allows for good water drainage, which works excellent for melons.
"[Otherwise] the water will make them be soft if it's a wet year," George Taylor said.
A 1911 history of Muscatine County edited by Irving Richman called the area "the melon garden spot in the world."
However, the production of melons in the area has declined over the past several decades. According to a 2004 Iowa State University study of the Muscatine Melon authored by Susan Futrell and Craig Chase, Muscatine County had 2,000 acres producing watermelons and 500 acres producing muskmelons and cantaloupes in 1921 after its beginnings in the 1880's. By 2004, however, the US Department of Agriculture only counted 12 commercial melon growers in the county producing melons on 107 acres.
Local farmers agree that the market has declined, and both they and the study cite several factors for that decline. Some of these included:
- The growing unwillingness for bigger distributors to work with smaller farmers.
- Increased productivity of melon farmers.
- The growing complexity of farming melons, including having to start their growth in greenhouses to help better protect them from weather conditions and fungus.
- The movement of more farmers into what they see as more stable crops in corn and beans.
- The ever increasing difficulty in finding workers to harvest those melons.
"You have to find a lot of temporary help," Taylor said.
However, despite the downsizing of the melon market in Muscatine County, those looking for authentic Muscatine Melons can still find them in roadside stands around Muscatine County and at some local stores, producers said.
"They're known everywhere, especially locally," Krueger said.