As I mentioned earlier this month, my goal is to interview a different watermelon-related personality each month and deliver those Q&A sessions to you in a blog entry right here on The Slice. But where do I begin that journey?
Sure, I could have chatted with a watermelon farmer, a world champion watermelon seed spitter or the competitive eater who holds the all time watermelon-eating record. And while I will interview all three of those people at some point this year, I thought my first blog entry should start right here at the National Watermelon Promotion Board with a chat with Board Executive Director, Mark Arney.
Mark has been the head of the National Watermelon Promotion Board since 2003. Before that, he was an apple man, serving as the CEO of the Michigan Apple Committee. Needless to say, he’s a man who knows his fruit.
I sat down with him recently to kick off my year of year of interviews, and we talked about everything from the Board’s goals to his favorite way to enjoy our favorite fruit.
THANKS FOR TAKING SOME TIME TO TALK WITH ME, MARK! HOW BUSY ARE THINGS OVER AT THE NATIONAL WATERMELON PROMOTION BOARD THESE DAYS?
We’re always busy. The industry has changed fairly dramatically since I began at the NWPB. We are truly a year-round organization and industry. Several years ago we would designate activities and programs in our peak summertime season and then the import season. Now it’s so much of a year-round product that internally we say Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter activities. Every season there’s a reason for watermelon. From a marketing standpoint, it’s a good thing to have watermelon in the winter because it helps set the tone for the domestic growers. When the product is there in front of the consumer all year round there’s an advantage for everybody. Even in places where you wouldn’t think watermelon would be selling … like in the middle of winter in the Midwest, big retailers are selling fresh cut watermelon very successfully.
WHEN ARE WE GONNA SEE THOSE AWESOME SQUARE WATERMELONS SOLD HERE IN THE UNITED STATES LIKE THEY HAVE IN JAPAN? I REALLY THINK YOU SHOULD MAKE THAT A PRIORITY. IF NOT THIS YEAR, THEN DEFINITELY NEXT YEAR.
Aren’t those square watermelons intriguing? I actually tried to grow them through a friend here in the States. I visited him, I got the plexiglass containers that the Japanese use, and ultimately it was a failure. We didn’t realize the time and the requirements of growing, such as all the labor. You have to remember that those square watermelons in Japan can cost $50 - $60. We have to find out if the consumer here is willing to pay the price to account for all that extra labor. Let us know if you’d pay more than $50 for a square watermelon!
ONE OF THE MAIN GOALS OF THE NATIONAL WATERMELON PROMOTION BOARD IS POSITIONING WATERMELON AS A YEAR-ROUND FRUIT AND NOT JUST A SUMMER SNACK. HOW SUCCESSFUL HAVE YOU BEEN IN ACCOMPLISHING THAT GOAL?
We have a responsibility to the watermelon industry: to prove that we are successful stewards of their assessment dollars. Our job is to increase demand for fresh watermelon, and we have been very successful in reaching that goal, particularly in the Fall-Winter season. Consumption is up, people are eating more watermelon, and enjoying it all 12 months of the year.
I KNOW FROM WORKING WITH SOME MEMBERS OF YOUR TEAM THAT THE BOARD HAS A VERY BUSY SCHEDULE EACH YEAR. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES FROM YOUR 13 YEARS WITH THE NATIONAL WATERMELON PROMOTION BOARD?
The watermelon industry is full of progressive thinkers. Founding Board members had a lot of foresight when they established our organization - they believed that watermelon should be consumed year-round because of the relatively short crop period and they were right. They also saw the potential in embracing and growing imports. The members are great people to work for, and as a result our staff is very enthusiastic about their jobs. Everyone truly believes in the product because we represent something that everyone can endorse. Funny story - I actually had a choice to work for a funeral industry association when I left the apple industry. And the money was good. But I wanted a fun job. I still wanted to work for farmers and I wanted to have fun. The watermelon industry literally saved me from a fate worse than death!
I’VE GOTTA ASK: CHUNKS OR WEDGES?
ANYTHING ELSE YOU'D LIKE US TO KNOW?
The watermelon industry is well positioned to keep up with the rapidly changing times, like the creation of home grocery delivery. As a staff we’re staying on top of emerging trends in order to provide resources for retailers, consumers and the foodservice sector. Fortunately for us, watermelon is healthy, versatile and affordable, with a low cost-per-serving. People are never going to get tired of hearing that!
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING MOST FORWARD TO THIS YEAR?
Seeing the synergy of our communications, foodservice and retail departments … for example, our consumer research shows that the number one reason people buy watermelon is the taste. We can use this knowledge to help guide our retail and foodservice departments. Speaking of foodservice, which is a new arena for us, we’re already making tremendous progress as far as getting watermelon on more restaurant menus. Staff collaboration – along with our Board member’s direction – has really set the stage for a success.
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