After moving boxes of belongings from stuffed cars across hot pavement and into dorm rooms that will quickly become home, Duke’s first-year students and their families drifted onto East Campus’ shaded lawn and into Tuesday afternoon’s First-Year Zero Waste Picnic.
The first thing guests encountered was a table of refreshing sliced watermelon.
With its vibrant orange flesh, the most eye-catching slices on the table were of the Orangeglo heirloom variety, pulled from the soil of the one-acre Duke Campus Farm.
“It’s got a good flavor and it’s really showy with the bright orange color,” said Lucas Howerter, Duke Campus Farm’s production manager.
Whether it’s served by Duke Dining, which played a central role in Tuesday’s picnic, or distributed to customers through a community supported agriculture program, produce from Duke Campus Farm is as local as it gets.
Since the farm was founded in 2010, it has served as a teaching tool, allowing students from many disciplines - as well as staff and faculty - an opportunity to learn about sustainable farming practices and our relationship to the food we eat.
And as shown by the life of the Orangeglo watermelons, the food produced by Duke Campus Farm’s staff and volunteers can be as beautiful and delicious as you’ll find anywhere.
The watermelon’s story begins in early May, when seeds are planted in small cups of soil and allowed to sprout. In a few weeks, 198 plants – of both Orangeglo and the familiar red-fleshed Crimson Sweet varieties – are sewn in rows, a few feet apart. They’re grown specifically for the First-Year Zero Waste Picnic, which is around three months away. When harvested, Orangeglo watermelons have sweet, bright orange flesh and, in past growing seasons at the farm, have topped out at 30 pounds. But with the whole summer growing season ahead, nature will have the ultimate say in how the crop turns out.
Through June and July, the patch of watermelons doesn’t require much attention. Vines spread quickly, helping choke out space and sunlight for weeds. The melons themselves start appearing in late June and grow steadily in the shade of their own leaves.
“They’re very low-maintenance, unlike tomatoes, for example, where you’re pruning and trellising,” said Emily McGinty, Duke Campus Farm’s assistant program coordinator.
“We just planted these and basically haven’t touched them since,” Howerter said.
Howerter, the farm’s production manager, points out that there are three ways to tell when a watermelon is ready. There’s a small tendril where the vine meets the melon. When it turns from green to brown, it’s a sign the melon is ripe. Also, if the underside of the melon goes from white to a buttery yellow or if, when thumped, the melon has a high-pitched ring and sounds hollow, it’s likely time to harvest.
In early August, the melons start displaying these traits, so Howerter and McGinty start cutting them free and loading them up. Soon they’ll be in the hands of Duke Dining, which will store and help prepare them.
Howerter said the farm was aiming for between 70-80 melons for the First-Year Zero Waste Picnic, which showcases the strides Duke has made in sustainability. The farm ended up with 81 melons, weighing a total of 980 pounds. However, with the harvest coming in early August, they’re slightly ahead of schedule.
“My guess is just the weather,” Howerter said, mulling potential reasons for the early harvest. “Just how hot and dry it’s been. Maybe it’s the amount of weed pressure in there or the amount of water I was giving them.”
As students and families walked up to the Duke Campus Farm booth during the First-Year Zero Waste Picnic on Tuesday, many sporting confused looks, McGinty had her pitch ready. She explains that yes, orange watermelons look odd, but they’re just as tasty and refreshing as more familiar red ones.
“It’s the same as when you give someone a purple carrot or a yellow tomato,” McGinty said.
After a few bites, guests are sold, enjoying a new twist on a familiar flavor of summer.
For Carol Cruz, though, the watermelons were nothing new. Upon seeing them, Cruz, who came from Virginia to drop off her son C.J., broke into a smile.
“My uncle used to grows these,” she said.
Cruz recalls him bringing them to family vacations when she was a kid.
“I’m glad we could bring back some good memories,” McGinty said.