Fresh produce from the roadside

Published 5:00 am Monday, August 25, 2008

One staple of summers in Mississippi is home-grown watermelonand other fresh produce, and it’s not just the old-timers that willtell you the best place to stock up is at the roadside fruit andvegetable stand.

And some produce growers populate local streets every day.Lincoln County growers Gina and Doc Covington said either way, theyenjoy being out as much as possible.

“We’re out pretty much every day with either this or farmersmarket,” Gina Covington said, saying that the only times they go inearly are when the weather gets bad. “You have to love it to doit.”

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The Covingtons’ stand, at the corner of Highway 51 andIndustrial Park Road, had a trailer full of watermelons, as well asokra, peas, and other produce that included a vat of peanuts DocCovington was boiling on the scene. A pile of shells from the peassat next to the cash register, and the Covingtons said shelling thepeas on the scene is a two-fold undertaking.

“It gives you something to do,” he said. “If you don’t shellthem yourself, you’re certainly not going to make any money havingsomeone else shell them.”

The sign by the road resembles so many other “watermelons forsale” signs that can be found throughout the county, with oneexception. Over the part that routinely says, “Smith County,” theCovingtons have situated a sign that says, “Lincoln County.”

Doc Covington said the Smith County watermelons are, in truth,not better because they’re from Smith County, but because they aregrown by people who know how to do it.

“It’s not the county, it’s the fact that they know how to grow awatermelon,” he said, saying that a friend of his from Smith Countyhad given him pointers and seeds for his own crop. “They have goodsoil there, so he gave me tips and some seeds from his garden, andthey just worked out.”

Mississippi State University Extension Service Director RebeccaBates agreed that the Smith County watermelons are in theory, justwatermelons like any others. But the soil can make quite adifference as well, she said.

“I guess everyone’s got an opinion, it’s like a Vidalia onion,we can grow them but we can’t call them that,” she said. “Do theirstaste better than ours? The differences would be the soil, the pHof the soil, and the percentage of sand, silt and clay in theground.”

The Covingtons said one important thing they have done is gettheir soil tested at MSU in order to find out what supplements itneeds in order to grow a more fertile crop.

“It costs too much to grow crops to mess it up,” Doc Covingtonsaid. “You want to make sure everything is done right.”

Bates said the soil testing is a routine thing for some growers,and it is always a good idea for people who are looking to makemoney on their produce.

“Usually people do soil testing in the fall, and the reason forthat is if you need to add lime, which many of our soils here youdo, it takes about 3 months for it to react with soil and have thepH adjusted,” she said. “Also when you get soil test back, you tellthem what crops you’re growing, and they’ll tell you how manypounds per acre of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium you need foroptimum growth.”

But produce stand aficionados tell of that lull in late August,when the planting seasons are just changing, and it’s time forproduce growers to sell off the last of their summer crops.

“Everybody’s in that in between time right now, even the farmersmarket people are looking at a two-week period where all they haveleft are things like watermelons, peppers, and egg plants,” saidBates. “Once that plays out, it’s time for the fall crops, like thegreen onions and broccoli, but right now we’re just in a spot wherenothing is really going on.”

But, Bates said, the ones that are out are still good. One goodthing about buying produce at a farmers market or a fruit stand isthat it’s always fresh.

“Most of these guys have picked the stuff within 48 hours of thetime it’s put out,” she said.