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Published Jul. 9, 2010

Growing watermelons was a crowded business when Olan Batten got into it in 1952.

The crop covered nearly 4,000 acres in Hernando County. Workers loaded watermelons on rail sidings all over the county - in Brooksville next to the long-gone Bell Fruit Co. warehouse on Jefferson Street, south of town where the railroad tracks cross Powell and Ayers roads, even down in Masaryktown.

In the week before Memorial Day - the dawn of the season, when Florida farmers had the national market to themselves - 40 or 50 boxcars a day full of watermelons would leave the county for New York, Philadelphia or Chicago.

Batten usually planted 80 acres in melons each year and hired more than a dozen pickers. When he made back the money, he'd put into seed, fertilizer and leasing the land, and there would be a small celebration in the field - MoonPies and RC Colas, on him.

Batten, 86, still likes to grow a large, seeded, traditional variety of watermelon, one with the dripping, bright-red interior, called the Jubilee. He sells the melons from his white pickup in the parking lot at the Hess convenience store at Spring Lake Highway and State Road 50. His son, Jimmy, sells them from the parking lot of Louie's Bowling Center in Brooksville. Prices range from $8 to $12.

The Battens' melons are the sweetest and juiciest in the county, said Jami Frazier, 26, who bought two of them for her sons on Wednesday afternoon, and who knows about produce; her father is David Frazier, the famous Hernando sweet corn grower.

"I don't think there's anyone in Hernando County that doesn't know Olan Batten sets up here with his truck full of watermelons,'' she said.

If they don't know, they should, just as they should know about her father's corn.

Along with Willie Wood Sr., 64, Batten is a holdover from the days when watermelon was a major crop in Hernando County. He's an institution.

But he'd rather just be another watermelon farmer in a county with lots of them.

"I miss it,'' he said of the old days. "I really miss it.''

One reason the commercial watermelon business died in Hernando, Woods and Batten said, is that young people don't want to work. It sounds like an old man's complaint, but Batten's crews stacked 50-pound melons on trucks or boxcars 12 hours a day. How many people do you know who are willing to do that?

Up-front costs are high, and these days credit is tight. Watermelons exhaust the land and are prone to so many fungi, bacteria and nematodes that Batten lets fields rest seven years between plantings.

The time of harvest might not matter as much for Woods and Batten, who both sell their melons locally. But for wider distribution, farmers here not only need to beat Georgia to market; they need to beat Gainesville, said George Casey, a Brooksville blueberry farmer and occasional watermelon grower. With this year's late freezes, he said, a commercial watermelon crop wouldn't have been worth picking.

"I can go to Las Vegas and lower the odds,'' said Casey, who hasn't grown watermelons in three years.

Still, for a young or not-so-young person who likes to work, there could be an opportunity in watermelons. Maybe, with all its under-used pasture land and need for enterprise, Hernando could at least fill a few semitrailers.

Batten leases his land, and usually gets it cheap because he ensures the owner will get a big greenbelt tax break.

He doesn't spend money on irrigation lines. And because most pests thrive in moisture, he hasn't sprayed for them in years.

And almost every year for the last 58 - with the bone-dry season of 2000 being one exception - he's made at least a little money. Some years he made a lot - $40,000 or $50,000 in the 1970s, when that was a big payoff.

It would take a tolerance for risk. And energy. And an interest in growing watermelons, which Batten has always had.

"I just like to see them grow. One day he'll be this big,'' Batten said, referring to a melon, and holding his finger an inch apart. "The next day he's big as a cucumber.''

This year, he's seen them grow bigger than ever. He planted some of his field in a new variety called a Truck Buster. One of them weighed in at 82 pounds.

In 1992, when I wrote a feature about his family's life in agriculture, Jimmy Batten gave me the perfect quote to describe his father's love for this crop. He was good enough to repeat it for me on Wednesday:

"My Daddy would rather plant a watermelon seed than eat when he's hungry.''