Brothers Jonathan and Justin Hunter are the newest and youngest registered Cave City Watermelon Growers. They bring with them lots of experience. Justin began working with melons when he was just 12-13 and has always loved the right of passage into summer in Cave City as a teenage boy… working in the watermelon fields with neighbor and friend, Wendall Perkey. “I would get up and run over there every morning and we would pick the garden while he was picking melons,” Justin explained.
The Hunter Brothers first year producing melons was in 2021. The boys grew up literally in the middle of watermelon fields. Jonathan even purchased his childhood home as an adult and is still in the midst of the melon fields. Justin said, “I just fell into it. Wendall really took the time to really show me how to do it. He showed me how to do the planting and how the melons sounded when we picked them. He showed me bits and pieces. You start out loading then he started letting me do and more and more as we went along,” Justin explained of his early interest in watermelon farming and Perkey as his mentor.
Last year the Hunters began planting three acres. Their year was enjoyable and their children were able to work together and make a little money. Both Jonathan and Justin differ from most other growers as they both work 40 hour per week jobs, Jonathan at White River Now, and Justin for White River Distributors. His father, Anthony also helps when he can with the production. Their sister Deana and Cassy Stauffer work at the stand with customers.
The Hunters do not yet have a greenhouse in their new operation, but this year brought trays from Wendall Perkey and Phillip Johnson that were ready to plant. The Hunters broke ground at the beginning of April. “We had a lot of work to do. It was real turfy. We got a lot of help from our fellow growers, Wendall and Mickey Perkey and Gary and Phillip Johnson. They let us borrow breaking plows and things because we didn’t have the things we needed. They jumped right in with advice and help,” he said.
Contrary to what many may think who are outside the grower association that all the growers are in competition against each other and want to beat each other. “There is not a one of them that way, they are right there with advice to tell you what works for them, what didn’t work for them and might not. It is absolutely necessary. They have saved us so much time and stuff by just telling us what to do. They have all been out to the field physically and told us what we needed to do. Gary and them let us borrow a disc. They want to see us do good.”
They laid plastic on May 1 and got melons in the ground on May 8 and planted for a few weeks. The plants are harvested in about 60 days, depending on the variety. This year, they got their first load of the 2022 crop off on July 7.
Last year they bought a farm from Perkey and went all in and it worked. This year they were able to buy some equipment. “Last year, Wendall did everything for us. we didn’t have a tractor, a planter or anything, it was all him.
This year, we got us some stuff. You are going to slowly add to your equipment each year. You can’t just go all in with the price of everything these days. There wouldn’t have been any way to do it without the help from all the other growers,”
This year, they planted eight acres. “We haven’t turned off water for at least six weeks now,” Jonathan explained. They have a well and on Pfeiffer Water. “Even with 24/7 water, that still isn’t enough.”
The men are growing on new ground this year on Elenor Frazier’s farm. Frazier is one of first growers. The ground hadn’t been broken up for 40 years.
Jonathan, who is 32, and Justin, 27 are the youngest of the farmers and Jonathan said he plans to continue to grow. “I hope to be alive and healthy enough in 30 years to still be doing melons and maybe our kids will be helping us.” He said being the actual grower versus just being an employee of a watermelon farmer is very different and mistakes reflect on them so they are very careful in their production process to grow the best melons possible for their valued customers.
Justin said watermelon growing presents new challenges every day, but they have overcome each of them. “There are so many variables involved. You think you got one thing figured out, and then here comes a curve ball. Then you have 103 degree weather, record breaking heat for a straight month. If you have never been there, then you don’t know what to do.” He laughed and went on to say, “That is when I am sure both Wendall and Phillip get tired of seeing my number pop up because I am calling them if I see a yellow plant and asking them what to do.”
Other issues they have faced are insects. Justin said they have been able to stay on top of them this year. Both brothers have really enjoyed the adventure and hope to continue to grow melons. They also hope, like many of the growers who helped them get their start, to someday envelope their families into another generation of growers