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How Eckerd College helped build a more perfect cantaloupe

The St. Petersburg college teamed up with a central Florida plant breeder to create the Triton cantaloupe.
The Triton cantaloupe, created with help from Eckerd College.
The Triton cantaloupe, created with help from Eckerd College. [ Eckerd College ]
Published Oct. 18, 2019|Updated Oct. 18, 2019

Earlier this year, Jason Cavatorta picked up a cantaloupe from a small plot on a farm near Yeehaw Junction.

The melon had attractive netting, the ridges that wrap around the skin. He sliced it open with a wooden-handled knife, revealing an enticing orange flesh with tightly packed seeds and not too much rind.

He lifted a chunk to his mouth — sweet with just enough complexity.

Cavatorta is patient. He has to be in his line of work — creating new varieties of fruits and vegetables. He spent five years crossing one type of cantaloupe with another, and waiting for the hybrids to ripen. Do they look good? Are they the right size? Will they survive transportation? And then he did it all again the next growing season. And again … and again.

Along the way, an Eckerd College professor and her students helped identify which ones were most likely to fend off diseases. The hope was that all the small failures would lead to a new cantaloupe with large yields and great taste.

Cavatorta held the payoff in his hand, the juice dripping onto the soil below. A new variety called Triton was growing all around him.

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• • •

Jason Cavatorta of EarthWork Seeds.
Jason Cavatorta of EarthWork Seeds. [ Earthwork Seeds ]

Cavatorta, 38, started his Oviedo-based business EarthWork Seeds in 2015 with the goal of creating tastier fruits and vegetables. He earns a living selling the seeds harvested from his inventions.

Store-bought tomatoes and melons had left him unsatisfied. He thought he could do better. It helped that he had a doctorate degree in plant breeding from Cornell University and spent 4½ years working on onion varieties at Monsanto, the giant agricultural company.

He also loves cantaloupes, a type of melon. He was already thinking of creating his own version of the Charentais, the famous French cantaloupe with a musky fragrance which he refers to as “summer flirtation, a fleeting indulgence.” So it was only natural to try to create a variety to take on the Athena, which has dominated the cantaloupe market in the eastern United States for decades.

At the time, Cavatorta didn’t know anyone who grew cantaloupes in Florida, so he cold-called some names given to him by the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Orlando. A friendly melon farmer near Yeehaw Junction in the central part of the state invited him to visit.

They spent a morning bumping around the farm in a Dodge Ram pickup, as Cavatorta peppered questions. Why do you grow melons? What do you like about the ones you harvest? What don’t you like? What can I do to make it better for you?

“You think you know something about a crop until you meet someone who has 20 seasons under his belt,” Cavatorta said.

One of the things the farmer wanted was a cantaloupe that would last longer in the field and after it was harvested. Some cantaloupes have to be picked within hours of ripening, Cavatorta said. That requires hiring workers to tend the fields every day during the six- to eight-week harvest. If Cavatorta could extend what’s called the “field holding” time, workers could pick the fruit every other day, cutting down on labor costs.

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Creating a long-storing melon that tastes like cardboard is easy, he said. Getting the taste just right takes a lot of trial and error.

The farmer agreed to let Cavatorta use a quarter acre of his property. He left with a head full of ideas, but he didn’t have anything to plant.

He got to work in his greenhouse cross-breeding cantaloupes that taste good with ones that stand up to the rigors of commercial production, much like farmers and plant breeders have done for centuries. He took pollen from one and transferred it to another at just the right time. Once they grew, he harvested the seeds and kept them until the next growing season, planted them and waited weeks for them to ripen.

He’d search the progeny for desirable characteristics — size, shape, color, firmness, texture, yield — and then use those to cross-pollinate some more. After a few years, he had hundreds of varieties.

“It’s very iterative and takes time, but it’s quite simple,” he said.

Triton cantaloupes
Triton cantaloupes [ Jason Cavatorta ]

He loves harvest season, when he finally gets to inspect the latest crop. He slices open dozens of experimental varieties on any given day, scribbling notes about the successes and failures on a clipboard.

Cavatorta takes a simple approach when it comes to taste. If he likes it, he bags some up, takes it home and asks his wife to take a bite. If she likes it, he invites others to try it.

“I get lots of people involved in tasting, but to assemble large panels to test hundreds of experimental varieties isn’t possible,” he said. “A lot of it comes down to my own decision-making.”

Taste is important, but so is creating a plant resistant to disease. That’s where Eckerd College helped out.

• • •

Associate biology professor Liza Conrad knew Cavatorta from their days at Cornell. They got to talking about the cantaloupe project. She had students looking for hands-on research, plus the college had recently built a greenhouse — a controlled environment ideal for testing, where cantaloupes would be matched against invaders like powdery mildew and Fusarium wilt, a fungal pathogen found in soil.

Associate professor Liza Conrad (right) and Jason Cavatorta tend to Triton cantaloupe plants in a greenhouse at Eckerd College.
Associate professor Liza Conrad (right) and Jason Cavatorta tend to Triton cantaloupe plants in a greenhouse at Eckerd College. [ Eckerd College ]

The name came easily. Cavatorta attended Triton Regional High School in Massachusetts and Eckerd’s mascot is the Triton.

In 2015, Cavatorta delivered the first seeds from about 20 cantaloupe families. He made several trips to campus to train students and get the project running, which included growing cantaloupe plants in the greenhouse. When the plants were two weeks old, the students dipped the roots in V8 juice laced with fungal spores, planted them again and waited three to four weeks to see which ones withered and which thrived. They grew some of the hardier ones into melons, which they ate.

Cavatorta would send more seeds and the process would start again. The students performed three screenings over four years.

“It’s not fast,” Conrad said. “But for students to see how the seed industry works close up, developing a product that they can actually eat, is an invaluable part of their education.”

Cavatorta also sent small pieces of leaves from promising cantaloupe plants to a California company that extracted DNA and scanned for genes that help ward off certain diseases. That helped the team focus on the cantaloupe varieties that were more likely to thrive.

Last year, Cavatorta called Conrad.

“I think I have it,” she remembered him saying. “I think I have Triton.”

• • •

More field testing in Yeehaw Junction, and on farms and gardens as far away as Arizona, Oregon and Maine, confirmed that Triton would hold up to industrial production. The Triton looks a lot like the Athena from the outside, but Conrad and Cavatorta bill it as more disease resistant, with a slightly longer storage life.

The Triton also tastes better, they say. It came out on top in a blind test of about 100 people held on the Eckerd campus earlier this year.

Cavatorta received his first shipment of 400,000 Triton seeds this month, enough to plant about 100 acres. He’s testing them to ensure they are disease free and have a high germination rate. While retailers set their own prices, he expects a packet for home gardeners to cost about $5 and be on sale in 2020.

Home gardeners and farmers interested in experimenting with the new melon will likely buy much of the first batch. If commercial farmers start planting Tritons, he’ll need tens of millions of seeds. That usually comes after a major grocer decides to stock them.

Commercial success isn’t guaranteed.

“You don’t know until you produce the seed and roll the dice,” he said. “It’s a risky business.”


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