Today, the average age of farmers in South Carolina is approaching 65. Traditions, skills, and history are rapidly being lost.
But there is a man named Nat Bradford.
He is changing that reality.
According to Dr. David Shields, a renowned Southern Agriculture expert, the watermelon varieties we are familiar with did not stabilize until well into the 1800s. Watermelons are a Citrullus lanatus species and part of the Cucurbitaceae family; and they are very easy to interbreed. In the 1800s, different varieties were often grown in the same field and this caused mass interbreeding, leading farmers to, essentially, have a different product every season. This led to a great diversity of size, flavor, color, rind thickness, and shape. Still, in the midst of this variety,, there were two main identifiable species of watermelon: the Carolina Long and the Mountain Sweet.
In the 1830s and 1840s, the Lawson Melon was brought to Georgia by commander Lawson in the American Revolution and named after him. The Lawson was flavorful but oblong and lumpy. Many farmers found it an unproductive crop and began to crave a watermelon with the taste of the Lawson but the smooth shape of the Carolina Long. So in the 1850s a man named Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford crossbred the lumpy Lawson melon with the Carolina Long and thus was born the Bradford Melon.
This Bradford Melon was a groundbreaking success. It had a smooth oblong shape, appearing like a giant cucumber and weighing around 20-40lbs. Its flesh was juicy, sweet, and so tender it could be eaten right to the rind. There was incredible demand for the Bradford Melon. Dr. Shields explained in his work that gangs of watermelon thieves traversed the countryside, forcing farmers to stand guard with shotguns, or attach electric shock mechanisms to certain melons in their fields and poison others, posting signs that read “eat at your own risk”. Sadly, people actually died during this conflict over the Bradford Melon. The world's tastiest watermelon had been cultivated and the Bradford Melon was not one to be missed.
Unfortunately, the War Between the States disrupted everything. Along with the destruction of its infrastructure and death of its people, the South was dealt a huge agricultural blow. Crop seeds were disrupted, land and farming features were destroyed, and the enslaved workers were liberated, leaving the South struggling to get back on its feet. Watermelons seemed to be the answer. They were relatively easy to grow and in high demand and farmers quickly planted large quantities.
But there was a new hurdle to overcome. Since the North was the biggest buyer and there was infinite demand, shippability was vital. The soft rinds of the Bradford Melon would be battered and bruised in a railway car long before a shipment arrived in the North. Desperate for a way to make an income, farmers crossbred the Bradford and the Rattlesnake melon with the Rhinoceros melon, known for its hard thick rind. This essentially marked the start of Southern truck farming and the mass shipment of produce to the North. With this development, monocrop agriculture rose to fame, and with it, the lack of biodiversity created an environment for diseases which destroyed vast majorities of the crops.
Watermelon breeding in the late 19th century and early 20th century became purely focused on cultivating a fruit that was easily shipped and strong enough to withstand disease. Valuing flavor was rapidly marginalized. The juicy, sweet, nutrient dense Bradford Melons had been left by the wayside and were forgotten. What was left in its stead was hard, seedless, tasteless, watermelons. In the words of Dr. Shields, as soon as people stopped breeding watermelons for flavor, they lost what makes food pleasurable and nutritious.
Food had lost its flavor. And therefore, had lost its meaning.
A man named Nat Bradford set out to change that. It was curiosity which sparked his interest in the renowned Bradford Melon and the melons he remembered his grandfather growing. On a call, Nat Bradford and Dr. Shields were able to connect the dots and find a genealogical link between the Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford of the 1800s and Nat Bradford today.
Nat shared that his family has always been farmers. His father and brothers were the first generation to stray from the family vocation. When when Nat discovered his connection with the Bradford Melon, he decided to return to his roots and plant the first crop of Bradford Melons in decades
Once Nat realized the potential of reconnecting with the past through these melons, he switched completely from the landscaping architecture business that he built to being a full time farmer. The transition required him to learn quicklyAs the father of five children he needed to replace his income and provide for his family. Planting, tending, and harvesting watermelons soon became daily life for the Bradford family. Nat explained that his children are a huge help in the family business and help make deliveries to renowned restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina that are eager to put this piece of history on their plates.
The Bradford Watermelon company now sells multiple watermelon products including watermelon beer, watermelon brandy, watermelon seeds, pickled watermelon rinds, and watermelon molasses. Nat said one of his favorite things has been developing and perfecting a watermelon molasses recipe from the 1800s. Through years of trial and error, he now has the process down and creates beautiful red watermelon molasses at the end of each season. While the watermelon products are an excellent way to share Bradford Melons with the world for Nat, it is not about creating a product. He says creating the molasses is a rhythm, a way of saying goodbye to the watermelon season, a way to welcome autumn with an old family recipe.
When asked about the future of the Bradford Melon, Nat was clear that he does not intend to commercialize. Keeping it local, keeping the close relationship with the crop that he and his family maintain, that is what it is all about. He hopes his children will carry on what he has started and another generation will be taught the valuable trade of farming. Bradford Melons are not good for shipping because their soft rinds are easily damaged and bruised. But Nat encourages people to purchase the seeds he sells, and bring a little bit of the Bradford Watermelon Company to their backyard. He said that farming has taught him a lot about the earth, about stewardship, and how nature provides what we need when we give it the space to. According to Dr. Shields, “The food from the past that will be most meaningful to people in the present is the food that tastes good”. And the food that tastes the best, is the food we grow ourselves. Nothing can replace the love, effort, and care that go into planting and harvesting your own produce.
Today, Bradford melons are even being grown in East Africa. Nat sent some seeds to a small village in Tanzania with a missionary in 2016. This village did not have a well or access to clean water. So the watermelon seeds were watered in the beginning in order to germinate, but since it was dry season, they had no water after that. Despite the difficult conditions, they harvested 11 watermelons. Watermelons are native to Africa, known as the Tsamma. In the past, people would not cross the desert without one of these in their possession. Depending on the size, a melon produces approximately four gallons of juice. Because of the high water content, they became known as nature's canteen. Watermelons cannot replace clean water wells, but for villages who do not have access to clean water or cannot afford a well, these watermelons can be hugely beneficial in providing nutritious juice for the community
A slice of Bradford Melon is a slice of history. The story began in the 1800s but continues today and stretches far into the future. The Bradford Melon is arguably the most delicious watermelon on the planet but it is out of reach for many. Because of the challenges of shipping, the best way for the world to taste these melons is to grow them locally and Nat Bradford hopes to continue to spread these melon seeds around the world. Nat Bradford and his impact on agriculture encourages individuals to think about stewardship, to work with the earth, and to cultivatenative plants and crops. He says that noticing the bounty around us will be the answer to a lot of the issues we currently face in the age of industrialized agriculture.