It pains Hank Houston to cut open his prized giant watermelons.
They’re his babies.
“I didn’t even want to cut last year’s one open, I ain’t gonna kid you,” the watermelon grower from Spotsylvania County said. “I was kidding people that I didn’t want to cut my baby. I don’t even like cutting them off the vine.”
Houston’s 254-pound giant watermelon, a Carolina Cross, won first prize at the State Fair of Virginia this year and also set a fair record for largest watermelon.
It took four men to load the monster melon into a truck for transport to the fair, which is in southern Caroline County.
Houston said the record-shattering cucurbit is “the grandson” of the previous state record-holding melon. It was grown from a seed that came from a melon grown from the seed of that legendary winner, a 245-pounder grown by Houston’s good friend, Davis Wells of Mechanicsville.
“He’s a buddy of mine, so I kind of felt bad beating his record,” Houston said.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t keep the winning melon around his house for a while to show off.
“I’ll keep it around here a week and brag on it,” he said.
Houston, who has grown giant watermelons for three years and giant pumpkins for eight years, said he grows his babies in 11-by-11-foot raised beds. They sit up on racks to keep the ants away.
He has the soil where they will grow tested each spring so that he can make sure it is perfectly balanced for the melons. They need sufficient magnesium and calcium—a dearth of those minerals can cause the aesthetically unpleasing blossom-end rot—so Houston adds Epsom salt and pellet gypsum to the soil.
To protect his babies from this summer’s heavy rains, Houston built each one a mini-greenhouse, using PVC pipe, rebar and tarp.
After all this coddling, the melon will come to a humble end.
It’s too over-ripe to eat, so “it just goes in the compost now,” Houston said.
It will become fertilizer for next year’s giant watermelons—but not before Houston saves some seeds to keep the line going.
Locals were well-represented among the winners in horticulture and livestock competitions at this year’s state fair.
The Caroline Middle School FFA chapter won first place in the giant hay bale art competition, in which student groups are challenged to make a hay bale look like an animal or farm equipment.
Students in the club turned the hay bale into a John Deere tractor.
Agriculture teacher and FFA club advisor Kelly Vaughan said the students worked on the elements for the design during September and assembled the hay bale on site at the fair a few days prior to its opening.
She said this is the second year the club has entered the giant hay bale competition.
“The kids were very surprised and excited [about winning first place],” Vaughan said. “They’ve been talking about it all week.”
Other local winners included Calvin Martin of Colonial Beach and Ashley Conklin of King George County, who received first-place ribbons in the youth poultry competition, for a blue Orpington rooster and pullet and a silkie bantam, respectively.
Young MacDonald’s Farm, where the winning poultry are displayed, was full of tour groups and grandparents with their grandchildren on Wednesday morning.
Art and Amanda Moody of Chester were making sure grandson Thomas Tirell, 2, didn’t fall from where he was perched on the fence surrounding the sliding duckings’ pen.
“He loves animals,” Amanda Moody said. “We’ve been here [watching the ducklings] for a while.”
She said taking her grandson to the fair is a teaching opportunity.
“I’ll go back and make a photo book of the things we’ve seen, so we can talk about the names of all the animals and baby animals,” she said.
Charlie Hammack, 2, of Chesterfield County was attempting to feed a stalk of hay to a donkey at another pen while his grandfather, Mike Hammack, looked on.
“We mostly came to see the animals,” Charlie’s grandmother, Jo Hammack, said. “We really want him to have these experiences because we don’t live on a farm.”
The tractors near the fair entrance had also been a huge hit with the toddler.
“We could not get him off those tractors,” Jo Hammack said.
“This is really special for us,” she added. “It’s a good day.”