CHESHIRE — The farmer known as the "melon whisperer" tries to be optimistic in this summer of so much wetness and wilt.
“Be positive,” he’s telling himself out loud here in this secretive field off Quarry Road. He sounds like he's practicing lines in a play. “In fact, I’m going to say it: I’m optimistic. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
He easily could blame the rain, far too much of it. He could blame the crows, too, those high-functioning freebooters that watch him from the trees, that take thorough notes and wait for their moment.
He could blame the field mice and woodchuck snacking on his gorgeous orbs, just enough to render them worthless. Or the deer, those cud chewers, trampling in their high heels, who can’t seem to watch where they’re walking. No one wants to pay for a hoof-punctured melon.
The powers in the sky, the creatures of the earth, they fail to grasp the consequences: that Guido’s Fresh Marketplace awaits, that Berkshire Food Co-op awaits, that these juicy fruits sell for $1.99 a pound in the produce aisle.
But the melon whisperer — with the reputation for clandestine powers over hard-to-manage melons — would be the first to admit that the heavens and the creatures of the earth have never, ever said to him: David Leavitt, you should grow melons … for a living … here in Berkshire County … Zone 5. You’d be a fool not to.
In fact, he recalls fellow farmers nearly 40 years ago telling him, “You’re nuts. Berkshire County? You’ll be lucky if you get a single melon before first frost.”
His mother never told him to grow melons. No, what she told him was to stand up straight, for goodness sakes, and to hold his head up high, something he has yet to master. Probably too late now. After all, he’s a melon farmer. Do you want to know who stands up straight with heads held high? Apple growers, for obvious reasons.
Melons don’t grow on trees. They’re all down there, ground level. A hunched-over Leavitt trains his focus on this disarray of spheres with cork-line rinds and other mysterious markings, these precious packages that yearn to spring toward maturity upon this ambivalent earth.
His father, too, never told his son to grow melons. No, what his father did was sometimes bring home a melon, a big, exotic Crenshaw or Casaba with thick fruit-meat inside. The family would gather around the table at their home on Northumberland Road in Pittsfield and stare at it. Then, they’d cut into it, just enough melon for everyone to have a taste.
“Those melons were like, out of this world,” Leavitt recalls. “But if you like something and are only allowed a little bit, psychologically you want more. It’s human nature.”
Human nature would nudge him to plug melon seeds into his boyhood backyard and sprinkle them with water from a garden hose. Sometimes melons would actually grow — to maturity — and whenever that happened, he discovered their taste would be superior to the “so-so” melons found in supermarkets.
Following his graduation in 1976 from the University of Massachusetts, melons continued to command his admiration and attention. He finally went pro in 1983 on leased fields in Dalton, then Pittsfield, then Great Barrington, then Pittsfield again and now, for the past five-plus years, here in Cheshire, on land owned a radiologist from Long Island.
This whole operation, this acre-plus of dutiful rows, this hose line leading to a nearby pond, these reclaimed Chiquita banana boxes awaiting ripened melons, this was all Leavitt’s doing, a stipulation of having wanted more of something spectacular.
And now here he is, in this erratic summer of 2021, with a melon crop in short supply due to the weather, the critters, the usual forces that typically make commercial melon farming in the Berkshires a marriage destined for divorce court.
The problem — rather, the blessing — is: Leavitt has been exceptional at what he does.
Café Adam in Great Barrington dubbed him the "melon whisperer" some years ago. Though Leavitt demurs, the title stuck.
Authors Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner included a chapter on Leavitt in “The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook,” published last year.
“He’s been a staple here. We’ve dealt with him, like, forever,” says Seth Hamilton, local produce buyer for Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield. “His melons are all delicious.”
But so far this season, as of this past week, not a single melon has left this field fixed with his signature sticker:
Berkshire County Grown"
Not to Guido’s. Not to Berkshire Food Co-op in Great Barrington. Not to anywhere.
This time last year he was already a few weeks deep into daily deliveries, his pick-up truck loaded. He grows five or six varieties of muskmelons, two or three varieties of honeydew and three varieties of watermelon, including his signature rainbow watermelon. The deliveries last year continued through early October. That’s all as it should be, when you’re the melon whisperer.
But things rarely ever are as they should be when you’re a farmer in New England, particularly a melon farmer.
It’s true that when Leavitt first got started, fewer melon seeds were on the market that could withstand our short, finicky growing seasons. More options are now available, thanks to plant breeders such as the late Dr. Brent Loy, a University of New Hampshire researcher, who developed many of the melon varieties now considered regional standards.
Still, says Leavitt, melons that are long-lasting tend to lack flavor, and those that are flavorsome typically are short-lived.
“I like challenges,” he says.
Leavitt, who remains married to melons and nothing more, can talk about soil composition, sugar concentration, ripening times, smell, taste, feel, and color in language that hopscotches from the biological to the mystical to the surgical. The overall effect is a gangly form of accidental farmer poetry.
“I’ve been at this close to 40 years,” Leavitt says, “and I still don’t know what’s going on. Every year I see things I’ve never seen before, and sometimes you deal with things and it works, and other times you deal with things and it doesn’t work.”
He says, “The world is all over the place today, and so am I.”
Of melons, of life, he says, “My ideal: a little sweetness, a little spiciness.”
When melons are ready to roll, he’s picking twice a day, in the morning and late afternoon. He’ll load up his truck near a tree line where he now stores all those carnival-colored foil balloons that didn’t keep the crows away and all that anti-critter reflective tape that only succeeded in making Leavitt woozy.
When the melons each are ready to be picked, they will turn a telltale color, which is — well, not always telltale.
And so what’s it all about, David Leavitt?
“OK,” he sighs. “Generally speaking —”
He pauses and scratches his scalp.
“You know what? We both need some energy,” he says. “Let me get a good melon.”
Under a shade tree beside his field, he drops his truck’s tailgate, an instant tasting table. With a fold-out knife, he cuts open a deep-ribbed muskmelon and carves out a couple hunks.
It tastes fantastic. But, to him, not good enough. He chucks it all into the woods. He grabs another melon, which tastes fantastic, but then there he is again chucking it all into the woods.
“They might be edible, good, comparable to what you might find in the stores,” he says, “but they’re not up to my standards, and that puts me in an uncomfortable position.”
This is why a melon hasn’t yet been affixed with his sticker this growing season. Some of his vines have been destroyed by the rain. Still others look lush, with orbs comfortably tucked under the cover of heart-shaped leaves.
There will be a crop this season, he says, a "decent crop." Everything will just be a little late.
Anyone else might scream. The melon whisperer instead inserts himself into a tangle of melon vines and declares, “I’m fighting back.”