GREEN RIVER — Even the mosquitoes like Green River melons.

There seem to be hundreds of them buzzing in the field at Dunham Farms. Below, leafy green vines partially camouflage the striped watermelons lying on the ground.

"Every bird, raccoon, deer, skunk and other wild critter likes a good watermelon," said Chris Dunham, pointing out where the fruit has been hollowed out, leaving an empty shell of rind. But fortunately, there are plenty of melons left in the field for humans — who also like a good watermelon.

Green River is the state's prime melon-growing spot, and every year the town celebrates Melon Days during the third weekend of September. This Saturday at the city park, truckloads of melons will be cut up and given away to festivalgoers, courtesy of the Dunhams and other longtime growers, such as the Vetere and Thayn families.

In late August and September, Utahns look for the identifying "Green River" signs and stickers in grocery stores and farmers markets. Travelers on I-70 make a point of stopping at the roadside stands dotting the small town.

"People buy truckloads of melons out of those stands, they like to take a bunch home to their families," said Seth Winterton, the deputy marketing director of Utah's Own, part of the Utah Department of Agriculture. "They have a reputation for being really sweet. That desert atmosphere is perfectly suited for melons, and they're right on the Green River so they have plenty of water."

Location has a lot to do with it, agreed 77-year-old Nancy Dunham, whose family has grown melons for more than 40 years. "Melons like desert climates. They want the hot days and the cool nights. The temperature fluctuation is what makes them store sugar. They also like sandy soil, but they don't like a lot of water."

The area has more than 100 years of melon-growing experience. As early as 1900, J.H. "Melon" Brown was experimenting with the crop. In the 1960s, Gene and Nancy Dunham started a pumpkin patch for their six kids, and it grew into a melon operation as they bought more land. Gene has since passed away, and son Chris now oversees the farm.

"Watermelons have a special energy to them that a lot of other plants don't have," Nancy Dunham said. "You can't grow them more than one or two years in the same soil, because they take some kind of energy out of it. In order to farm 50 acres of good melons, you need to have about 200 acres on your farm so that you can rotate the crops regularly. We've been fortunate to have enough land to do that."

The Dunham roadside stand boasts numerous prize ribbons that their melons have won in state and county fairs. There are huge bins piled with watermelons, yellow Crenshaws, Canaries, honeydews, cantaloupes and golden Israeli melons. There are variations, such as the 4- to 6-pound mini-watermelons, with thin rinds and few seeds; and the "honeyloupe," a cross between a honeydew and a cantaloupe.

"But watermelon is still the moneymaker," Nancy Dunham said. Chris added that he probably grows twice as many watermelons as the others.

Which begs the age-old question of how to pick a good watermelon. What's with all the tapping and thumping?

A ripe watermelon, when tapped, is supposed to have the same pitch as a B-flat, said Nancy Dunham. But what if you can't tell a B-flat from an F?

"It's supposed to sound crisp and hollow, with just a little wiggle in the middle," she added. "If it makes a dead thump, it's overripe."

Another tip that Chris Dunham gave the Utah Farm Bureau News in 2004: "Pat your stomach and listen carefully to that sound. Then pat the melon and see if the sound of the melon matches the sound of your stomach."

Also, the underside should have a creamy yellow spot rather than pale green or white. This shows where the melon sat on the ground and ripened in the sun. Other tips from the Watermelon Promotion Board:

• Look for a firm, symmetrical melon that is free from bruises, cuts or dents.

• Lift it up; the melon should be heavy for its size, since it's 92 percent water.

Unlike peaches or pears, melons don't ripen any more once they're picked, said Nancy Dunham. If kept chilled, they can keep up to a couple a weeks, "because they have a tough rind. But they go bad quickly if they're left out in the heat."

Cantaloupes should give off a sweet aroma, and the netting should be yellowish, not green. The surface of a ripe honeydew begins to get soft and almost sticky as the sugar comes to the surface, said Nancy Dunham.

The Dunhams sell their melons at the Murray Park farmers market on Fridays and Saturdays, and other brokers sell them at roadside stands along the Wasatch Front. Although some Green River-grown melons have an identifying sticker, Nancy Dunham said the Dunham Farms stickers often fall off.

"We're trying to get something that will stay on," she said.

Although melon season extends into September and October, many of the grocery stores lose interest after Labor Day.

"That's partly why they have Melon Days later in September, because by that time of year the market is down, but the melons are still good," said Chris Dunham. "So it's not a big deal to give away a couple truckloads in the park."

The demand for seedless watermelons had risen, he said, but they're more expensive to grow. A one-pound can of the seed costs about $1,400. In comparison, regular seed is about $20 per pound.

Like other farmers, they face the challenges of rising fuel costs and labor shortages. This season they had to stop watering with their huge pivot sprinkler that was powered by diesel. "I'm sick to see that beautiful hay field dry up, but it was costing $300 to $400 a day to run the sprinklers," said Nancy Dunham.

Melons must be hand-picked, and lifting heavy fruit off the ground is physically demanding. This year the Dunhams tried to hire workers from the Philippines. But, the bureaucratic red tape took too long.

"The men were supposed to come from July 15 to October 15, and we didn't get approval from Immigration until Aug. 22. Then we found out they had to also be approved in Manila and that wouldn't get done until Sept. 10. So it was hopeless," said Nancy Dunham. "I felt badly for the men because they really wanted to work."

Despite the challenges, Nancy Dunham said she wouldn't have lived her life any other way. "My degree is in agriculture, so I knew I would always have dirt under my fingernails."

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HONEYDEW SLUSH

1/4 honeydew melon, cubed (1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup grapefruit juice

1 tablespoon sugar

Cracked ice

Pure melon with grapefruit juice, sugar and ice in blender. Place 1/3 cup cracked ice in two 10-ounce glasses and pour even the slush in the two glasses. —Dunham Farms

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TOASTED TOMATILLO-WATERMELON SALSA

2 1/2 pounds medium tomatillos (peel off parchment-like coating and rinse)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 pound white or sweet onion, minced

1/4 cup fresh minced garlic

1/4 pound jalapeno peppers (or to taste), seeded and chopped

1/4 cup ground cumin

3 tablespoons mild chili powder

1 cup tomato sauce or puree

1 1/4 pounds watermelon chunks, seedless or with seeds removed

Kosher salt

Cut the tomatillos into quarters. Heat the oil in a large heavy saute pan over medium high heat. Saute onions for a few minutes. Add tomatillos, garlic and jalapenos. Saute until the onions and garlic begin to brown. Reduce heat to low and sprinkle the cumin and chili powder over the pan. Stir in the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Cool. Puree mixture in a blender or food processor with the watermelon. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Makes 6-7 cups. —National Watermelon Promotion Board

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LEMONADE WATERMELON PUNCH

1 large watermelon

1 12-ounce can frozen lemonade concentrate, thawed

2 cups water

1/4 cup grenadine syrup

1 32-ounce bottle lemon-lime soda, chilled

Select a melon about 20 inches long with a flat base. The day before serving, cut an 8-inch oval section from the top of the melon. Remove cut portion and reserve. Using long-handled spoon, scoop out all pulp, remove seeds. Place about 1/4 of the pulp in blender or food processor; cover and puree. Repeat with remaining pulp. Place melon shell on a tray. Return puree with melon shell. Stir in lemonade concentrate, water and grenadine. Replace cut portion of melon on top; refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, remove cut portion of melon, pour in lemon-lime soda to fill melon about 3/4 full. Makes about 20 cups. —Dunham Farms

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WATERMELON SHIRLEY TEMPLE

6 ounces watermelon juice

6 ounces lemon lime soda

2 teaspoons confectioner's sugar

Place all ingredients in a mixer. Mix, then strain and pour over crushed ice into glass. Serves 1. —National Watermelon Promotion Board

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GREEN RIVER MELON CHUTNEY

1 1/2 cups cubed cantaloupe

1 1/2 cups cubed honeydew melon

2 cups sugar

2/3 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup currants

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes or until slightly thickened. Keep refrigerated until serving. Makes 2 pints. —"Utah State Fare," by Paula Julander and JoAnne Milner (Deseret Book, 1995)

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CANTALOUPE DINNER SALAD

1/2 head lettuce, torn in pieces

1/2 fresh cantaloupe, diced

1 cup diced fresh orange

1 7-ounce can tuna, drained and broken into pieces

1/4 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup chopped green onions

1/4 cup diced American cheese

1/4 cup sliced black olives

1/4 cup mayonnaise

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Wash lettuce and tear into bite-sized pieces. Toss lettuce with next 7 ingredients and chill. Just before serving, mix mayonnaise and lemon juice together and toss with salad. —Dunham Farms


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com