Take a Dive into Wa­ter­mel­ons

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Li Shasha and Wang Hui­hui, edited by Mark Zuiderveld, pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

More than 30 new species of wa­ter­mel­ons will de­but on the mar­ket. Fol­low­ing the trend of “In­ter­net Plus agri­cul­ture,” peo­ple in Bei­jing can en­joy the con­ve­nience of pickup and de­liv­ery ser­vices in the same day.

Bei­jing is en­ter­ing its hottest sea­son this year. Pedes­tri­ans hide them­selves in the shade from the burn­ing sun while wa­ter­mel­ons in green­houses en­joy the nour­ish­ing sun­light. Farm­ers take pains to pick the wa­ter­mel­ons and move them to cold- chain ve­hi­cles but with sat­is­fied smiles on their faces. Con­sumers may be most joy­ous to have a feast of wa­ter­mel­ons. No won­der a med­i­cal poem de­scribes a wa­ter­melon as a mar­vel­lous

cooler for re­liev­ing sum­mer heat.

Bei­jing's Dax­ing District will launch more than 30 new species of wa­ter­mel­ons. Among them, five were re­warded “New Species Prize” at the 29th Na­tional Wa­ter­melon and Melon Con­test for high qual­ity and ex­cel­lent taste, in­clud­ing L900, Early-ma­tur­ing Ji­ayuan and Baim­ibao ( White Sweet Melon). Driven by an “In­ter­net Plus agri­cul­ture” con­cept, Bei­jingers can en­joy a “same- day pickup, same- day de­liv­ery” ser­vice.

Shi­tong Melon Park

Panggezhuang Town in Dax­ing District is as serene as usual in the early morn­ing, filled with the re­fresh­ing aroma of wa­ter­mel­ons. Farm­ers have worked for a long time at Shi­tong Melon Park south of Pang'an Road.

Com­ing to a green­house, we are over­taken by moist and hot air. A fer­tiliser dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem com­pris­ing of bar­rels, a pump and de­liv­er­ing pipes at the door in­di­cates that it is a green­house ap­ply­ing soil-less cul­ture. Look­ing around, green and lush wa­ter­mel­ons swing through a hang­ing-vine cul­ti­va­tion tech­nique other than creep­ing to the ground, look­ing well­pro­por­tioned.

A woman named Yuan Xiaosong owns the melon park. She has worked for nearly an hour al­though it is just past 7 a.m. She picks a male flower which has just blos­somed, ex­poses its sta­men, and care­fully ap­plies the sta­men to pis­tils one by one. Yuan says that pol­li­na­tion of each pis­til would de­ter­mine whether a wa­ter­melon will have a well-pro­por­tioned ap­pear­ance. In this green­house, 2,400 saplings of wa­ter­melon are planted. When the tem­per­a­ture in the green­house rises to 25 de­grees Cel­sius at around 7:30 a.m. ev­ery day, she be­gins ar­ti­fi­cial pol­li­na­tion for about an hour. It takes her a week to fin­ish the pol­li­na­tion of all 2,400 saplings. To con­trol the ma­tur­ing time, she groups the wa­ter­mel­ons ap­plied with pol­li­na­tion within two to three days and dif­fer­en­ti­ates them by ty­ing up white, red and pur­ple thin rope. This method is also help­ful in the man­age­ment of wa­ter and fer­tiliser.

In re­cent years, wa­ter­melon grow­ing tech­nol­ogy in Bei­jing's sub­urbs has im­proved. Peo­ple hardly see a wa­ter­melon grow­ing on the ground in the open air, in­stead green­houses are tak­ing the lead. Soil-less cul­ture tech­niques help pro­tect wa­ter­mel­ons from dis­eases and in­crease out­put, be­cause most dis­eases arise from soil for plants. A wa­ter­melon is even in­clined to wilt. If wa­ter­mel­ons are re­peat­edly planted on the same piece of land, all of them would wilt af­ter the third time. Aside from graft­ing tech­niques, soil-less cul­ture is the best so­lu­tion. The tech­nique's base ma­te­rial is com­posed of ster­ilised grass car­bon and or­ganic fer­tiliser, re­duc­ing the use of in­sec­ti­cides and mak­ing it healthier.

The soil-less cul­ture's nu­tri­ent el­e­ments are mainly sup­plied by fer­tiliser dis­tri­bu­tion. Four bar­rels re­spec­tively la­beled A,B, C and D, are filled with four dif­fer­ent nu­tri­ent so­lu­tions, cal­cium ni­trate tetrahy­drate in bar­rel A, am­mo­nium di­hy­dro­gen phos­phate and sodium sil­i­cate in bar­rel B, potas­sium sul­fate, zinc sul­phate, man­ganese sul­phate and fer­ric sul­fate in bar­rel C, and ni­tric acid in bar­rel D. The pump on the bar­rels ex­tracts so­lu­tions at a cer­tain pro­por­tion and trans­mits to an­other bar­rel to mix at an ap­pro­pri­ate con­cen­tra­tion, re­al­is­ing pre­cise fer­til­i­sa­tion. Later, the blended nu­tri­ent so­lu­tion is guided by a drip ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem to the base ma­te­rial of each wa­ter­melon plant. Yuan says that the drip ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem re­quires only 130 cu­bic me­tres in a grow­ing sea­son com­pared with 280 cu­bic me­tres for field ir­ri­ga­tion.

Yuan is sat­is­fied when she sees the lit­tle wa­ter­mel­ons grow­ing on green vines. She be­gins to tie vines ten days af­ter pol­li­na­tion. She says, “It is im­por­tant to tie the ten-day wa­ter­mel­ons up to the vine. Oth­er­wise, their ten­der peels may be chafed in the wind, resulting in bad ap­pear­ance. Three to four days af­ter ty­ing vines, wa­ter­melon swelling wa­ter will be used via a drip ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem for 15 min­utes for the first time, and again af­ter a week's time. When wa­ter­mel­ons be­come ma­ture about 40 days af­ter pol­li­na­tion, it is best to pick the fruit be­tween 5–7 a.m. for longer preser­va­tion time and bet­ter taste than those picked at other times.”

It takes about 110 days for a wa­ter­melon seed to ma­ture. The fruit can be planted in two sea­sons in Bei­jing. The first sea­son can start by the end of Jan­uary

and har­vest in mid­dle and late May. For the sec­ond sea­son, wa­ter­melon seeds can be planted in early July and reaped be­fore Na­tional Day. The ap­pli­ca­tion of a hang­ingvine cul­ti­va­tion and fer­tiliser dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem helps in­crease plant­ing and out­put, as seen in Yuan's green­house which can har­vest 2,000 wa­ter­mel­ons in a sea­son. This proves green­house ad­van­tages.

Yuan per­son­ally ven­ti­lates the green­house ev­ery morn­ing and closes win­dows to keep warm each night to guar­an­tee the best grow­ing en­vi­ron­ment. She also has to con­duct wa­ter and fer­tiliser man­age­ment, pinch branches and trim vines in the muggy green­house. With ten­hour work ev­ery day year-round, Yan has made the Shi­tong Melon Park into a star field that in­te­grates pro­duc­tion, test­ing, demon­stra­tion, pro­mo­tion and leisure.

Wa­ter­mel­ons Con­nec­tions

Un­der the sun, rows of de­li­cious wa­ter­mel­ons are put in the shade in the court­yard of Shi­tong Melon Park. Haoyun­lai, Tianyu No. 1, Tianyu No. 2, Tianyu No. 3, Meiyu No. 3 and Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang, and var­i­ous va­ri­eties of wa­ter­melon are mouth-wa­ter­ing, and staff from Bei­jing Agri­cul­tural Tech­nol­ogy Pro­mo­tion Sta­tion eval­u­ate the new species.

The staff care­fully test for the peel's hard­ness, shape, sec­tions, sugar con­tent and feel­ing in the mouth. Zeng Jianbo, di­rec­tor of Melon Crop Di­vi­sion, praised as the “wa­ter­melon ex­pert,” says that they would com­pare th­ese new species with the pub­licly recog­nised Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang, se­lect­ing a bet­ter one to pro­mote in the mar­ket.

The staff scoop some juice from the rim and cen­tre of a cut wa­ter­melon, and place it on a sugar me­ter to test its sugar con­tent. Af­ter that, they started to taste and eval­u­ate the wa­ter­mel­ons for its pulp and sweet flavour.

The tested ones this time are small wa­ter­mel­ons weigh­ing be­tween 1.5–2 kilo­grams, which have be­come more pop­u­lar among Bei­jingers. Zeng Jianbo in­tro­duces that wa­ter­melon cul­ti­va­tion in Bei­jing dates back to the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271–1368), when wa­ter­mel­ons were planted in sandy soil on the al­lu­vial plain of the Yongding River Basin. There are two species of wa­ter­mel­ons now planted in Bei­jing. One is mid­sized like the Jingxin se­ries, among which Jingxin No. 2 and Huaxin are com­monly eaten by Bei­jing lo­cals and have about 10 de­grees of sugar con­tent; and Zao­jia se­ries rep­re­sented by Qilin wa­ter­mel­ons which have thin peel and ap­pro­pri­ate sugar-acid ra­tio, taste re­fresh­ing, but dou­ble the price of com­mon mid­sized wa­ter­mel­ons. An­other type is smaller, such as Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang, the L600 and Jingy­ing, with sugar con­tent at 13 and 15, the high­est for wa­ter­mel­ons. Jingxin wa­ter­mel­ons are cur­rently preva­lent in Bei­jing, while its smaller coun­ter­parts have rapidly grown. The grow­ing area of small wa­ter­mel­ons has ex­ceeded a quar­ter of the to­tal area for ten years.

The pro­duc­tion of small wa­ter­mel­ons has im­proved three times for over ten years. The ear­li­est gen­er­a­tion was Hongx­i­aoyu from Ja­pan. The species tasted crisp with the sugar con­tent at 11.5 at the cen­tre, but it eas­ily cracked. The sec­ond was Zaochun Hongyu from China, and big­ger than the first with sugar con­tent be­ing 12. In third was the Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang, cur­rently on the mar­ket.

For breed­ing, Zeng says, “The first step of breed­ing is to in­tro­duce a va­ri­ety of seeds, gen­er­ally over 20 species at a time con­sid­er­ing sim­i­lar cli­mates, lat­i­tude, air hu­mid­ity and tem­per­a­ture. Then plant­ing the seeds to ob­serve how they grow, and se­lect­ing the most ap­pro­pri­ate ac­cord­ing to in­di­ca­tors. Through self­ing (self-fer­til­is­ing)

and seg­re­ga­tion, par­ent ma­te­ri­als in ideal con­di­tions, such as high sugar con­tent, long shape and strong re­sis­tance to con­ta­gions, will be cho­sen. Fi­nally, the species cater­ing to the mar­ket de­mands via pair­ing and match­ing will be re­tained. This is a long process that re­quires a nine-gen­er­a­tion breed­ing process of least three to five years.”

The to­tal out­put of wa­ter­mel­ons in Bei­jing ex­pects to reach 280 mil­lion kilo­grams this year, far less than one fifth of the to­tal sup­ply in the Bei­jing mar­ket. From the per­spec­tive of the co­or­di­nated de­vel­op­ment of Bei­jing-tian­jin-he­bei, Bei­jing will be­come an in­no­va­tive dis­play cen­tre of wa­ter­mel­ons in the fu­ture, fea­tur­ing tours, wa­ter­melon pick-up, and ex­per­i­men­tal model fields. Wa­ter­mel­ons will be planted in He­bei Province, Tian­jin and even Shan­dong Province, and then resold to Bei­jing.

Wa­ter­mel­ons are eaten year-round. In win­ter, wa­ter­mel­ons from Hainan and Yun­nan prov­inces are com­mon, in­clud­ing those from Myanmar and Laos. Most wa­ter­mel­ons from Hainan are seed­less and have a coarse taste. Wa­ter­mel­ons from Weifang and other places in Shan­dong Province are pop­u­lar in April and May, where they taste sim­i­lar to Bei­jing's with a low sugar con­tent af­fected by cli­mate. Bei­jing's wa­ter­mel­ons come onto the mar­ket in May and June; Jingxin and Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang are high-qual­ity wa­ter­mel­ons mainly pro­duced in Dax­ing District, with some pro­duced in Shunyi and Yan­qing dis­tricts. In July and Au­gust, wa­ter­mel­ons from Ningxia Hui Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion are made avail­able in Bei­jing, with a sweet and mushy taste, but with thick peel and fi­bre. In Septem­ber, large wa­ter­mel­ons from North­east China grown in open fields weigh more than eight kilo­grams and cater for Bei­jing's hard, crisp and sweet taste, with 11 de­grees of sugar con­tent.

“The Na­tional Wa­ter­melon and Melon Con­tests th­ese years prove that Bei­jing's wa­ter­mel­ons are the best, es­pe­cially the small ones. Among them, the L800 and L900, up­dated ver­sions of the L600, one of the favourite species in Dax­ing District, will be pro­moted at a near equal price but high sugar con­tent and a crisp pulp. Bei­jing's out­put of wa­ter­mel­ons this year is re­duced com­pared with that of last year, but taste sweeter due to large tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences, suf­fi­cient sun­light, less rain­fall and fewer hazy days,” Zeng says.

Wa­ter­mel­ons are more than a fruit. Po­ems and celebri­ties eu­lo­gised the fruit. In times with­out air con­di­tion­ers, cooled wa­ter­mel­ons served as fruit air con­di­tion­ers, so some el­derly state that to­day's wa­ter­mel­ons taste less de­li­cious than be­fore.

Ac­counts in­di­cate that present­day wa­ter­mel­ons tasted sweeter than be­fore. In 2012, Zeng re­grew Heibengjin, a wa­ter­melon species in Bei­jing in the 1980s and tasted it. He con­cluded that the species' sugar con­tent was below 8 and had a thick fi­bre, com­pared with that above 10 de­grees

of Jingxin wa­ter­mel­ons. “The wa­ter­melon species and tech­niques of cul­ti­va­tion have im­proved. Forty per­cent of a high- qual­ity wa­ter­melon is de­cided by its breed­ing. To­day's wa­ter­mel­ons taste sweeter than be­fore,” says Zeng.

In­te­gra­tion with the In­ter­net

How long does it take for wa­ter­mel­ons to be trans­ported from field to ta­ble? Farm­ers pick them in the early morn­ing, then whole­salers ship them to the mar­ket in the af­ter­noon. The next morn­ing, wa­ter­mel­ons are sold to re­tail­ers. On the third morn­ing, the wa­ter­mel­ons are placed on shelves by re­tail­ers, giv­ing cus­tomers a se­lec­tion to pick and choose from.

How­ever, that's in the past. It now only takes up to a day to trans­port wa­ter­mel­ons from the field to the ta­ble. Thanks to the rapid de­vel­op­ment of the In­ter­net, the public can take de­li­cious wa­ter­mel­ons within the short­est time. Bei­jing's wa­ter­melon sales modes have be­come more di­verse. Pick­ing wa­ter­mel­ons, on­line sales, whole­sale mar­kets, and su­per­mar­ket sales have de­vel­oped.

In Jan­uary 2017, China In­ter­net Net­work In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter (CNNIC) com­pleted the 39th ver­sion of the China Sta­tis­ti­cal Re­port on In­ter­net De­vel­op­ment and an­a­lysed China's In­ter­net users. By the end of De­cem­ber 2016, the num­ber of Chi­nese In­ter­net users reached 731 mil­lion, an in­crease of 42.99 mil­lion in the year. In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion rate reached 53.2 per­cent, an in­crease of 2.9 per­cent over the last year. The num­ber of Chi­nese In­ter­net users is ex­pected to reach 772 mil­lion in 2017, with grad­u­ally im­proved In­ter­net con­sump­tion ca­pac­ity. With the im­ple­men­ta­tion of “In­ter­net Plus,” the de­vel­op­ment of In­ter­net-based en­ter­prises has been pro­moted. By the end of De­cem­ber 2016, the num­ber of China's on­line shop­ping users reached 467 mil­lion, an in­crease of 12.9 per­cent over 2015, ac­count­ing for 63.8 per­cent of In­ter­net users. Among them, the num­ber of mo­bile phone on­line shop­pers reached 441 mil­lion, ac­count­ing for 63.4 per­cent of mo­bile In­ter­net users. The num­ber of China's on­line pay­ment users reached 475 mil­lion, among whom mo­bile pay­ment users grew rapidly, reach­ing 469 mil­lion.

The In­ter­net's pros­per­ity has helped open up many sales bar­ri­ers, speed up cir­cu­la­tion, and guar­an­tee qual­ity of goods. Yuan says, “We'll con­tinue to de­velop our e-com­merce as it's the fu­ture trend which guar­an­tees ben­e­fits. In the mean­time, in­ter­me­di­ate links have been saved.”

When small wa­ter­mel­ons like Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang and L600 were recog­nised by the mar­ket in 2013, Shi­tong Melon Park be­gan to in­te­grate its busi­ness with the In­ter­net. Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang fea­tures a high sugar con­tent, crisp taste and tough peel, re­sis­tant to stor­age and trans­porta­tion. Many e-com­merce mer­chants, in­clud­ing Jing­dong, took the ini­tia­tive to co­op­er­ate with Shi­tong Melon Park and sell Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang on their on­line plat­forms. In the past three years, both wa­ter­mel­ons sold on­line and on e-com­merce sales plat­forms have in­creased. To en­sure qual­ity wa­ter­mel­ons, staff would pick high-qual­ity wa­ter­mel­ons and ship them with an­ti­col­li­sion pack­ag­ing.

“As a small wa­ter­melon sales plat­form, our wa­ter­mel­ons are picked in the morn­ing and de­liv­ered in the af­ter­noon af­ter care­ful sort­ing and pack­ag­ing, so that cus­tomers can en­joy sweet the wa­ter­mel­ons the next day,” ex­plains Yuan. In the workshop, Yuan points to 140 boxes of wa­ter­mel­ons that have been pack­aged, say­ing, “There is great mar­ket de­mand for Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang wa­ter­mel­ons. We sold 1,500,000 kilo­grams of that species last year. Th­ese boxes of wa­ter­mel­ons have high qual­ity. They have a reg­u­lar shape, al­most equal weight, high sugar con­tent over 12 de­grees, pink pulp and fine fi­bre.

If peo­ple want to eat more fresh wa­ter­mel­ons, they can go di­rectly to the melon park to pick them by them­selves. Zeng says that Bei­jing's pick­ing agri­cul­ture has de­vel­oped rapidly in re­cent years. Pick­ing wa­ter­mel­ons ac­count for 30 per­cent of the to­tal wa­ter­melon sales vol­ume in Dax­ing District. Based on mar­ket de­mand, Bei­jing Agri­cul­tural Tech­nol­ogy Pro­mo­tion Sta­tion has pro­moted its hang­ing-vine cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques and small-sized wa­ter­mel­ons. Last year, it also pro­moted its ap­ple-sized Jingya wa­ter­melon species, pro­vid­ing cus­tomers with more choices.

Wa­ter­melon Ex­per­tise

If one thing has to rep­re­sent sum­mer, the wa­ter­melon is it. Though the mar­ket has never lacked high- qual­ity wa­ter­mel­ons, not ev­ery­one has a good com­mand for se­lect­ing them. Af­ter years of re­search, Zeng Jianbo, an ex­pert in wa­ter­melon, sum­marises some ways to pick and choose high- qual­ity wa­ter­mel­ons.

“It is sim­i­lar to look­ing, lis­ten­ing, ques­tion­ing and feel­ing in tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine,” says Zeng. Wa­ter­melon peels vary ac­cord­ing to species. There is no stan­dard colour that can guar­an­tee a wa­ter­melon's qual­ity. Most peels are dark green and light green, but some are yel­low, black and even white. Some peels are smooth, while some are cov­ered with a layer of wax. Never judge a wa­ter­melon by its ex­ter­nal colour.

Take Jingxin No. 2, a pop­u­lar wa­ter­melon species in Bei­jing, as an ex­am­ple, which fea­tures a green peel, clear strips and a layer of frost on its out­side. On the other hand, Chaoyue Mengx­i­ang fea­tures light colour be­tween strips. As the wa­ter­melon ma­tures, dark green or green spots ap­pear on the peel, and be­come more ap­par­ent.

Aside from the peel, the wa­ter­melon vine also pro­vides use­ful in­for­ma­tion on whether the wa­ter­melon is fresh or not. The cross sec­tion of the vine is white in the mid­dle and green on its pe­riph­ery. The riper the wa­ter­melon is, the larger the white part of the vine oc­cu­pies, and the less hair its vine has. In ad­di­tion, if the con­nect­ing part be­tween the wa­ter­melon and its vine is con­cave, the wa­ter­melon is more likely to be hol­low in­side.

Some peo­ple be­lieve that fruits with a less beau­ti­ful ap­pear­ance taste good in­deed, but Zeng doesn't think so. A smooth peel and round shape have al­ways been eval­u­a­tion cri­te­ria for wa­ter­mel­ons. Ir­reg­u­lar shape is mainly caused by pol­li­na­tion fail­ure, low tem­per­a­ture and dys­pla­sia. More­over, in­suf­fi­cient wa­ter­ing might cause the wa­ter­melon to taste sweet, but not suc­cu­lent.

Af­ter care­ful ob­ser­va­tion, cus­tomers might be able to pick out tasty wa­ter­mel­ons. If they want to pick out bet­ter ones, one skill is nec­es­sary— lis­ten­ing. The tex­ture of the pulp varies with the ma­tu­rity of the wa­ter­melon. Pulp tex­ture, mois­ture con­tent and peel thick­ness can af­fect the sonic fre­quency of a wa­ter­melon; sens­ing the qual­ity of a wa­ter­melon by hit­ting its peel and list­ing to the echoes in­side. As the wa­ter­melon ma­tures, the time of its vi­bra­tion be­comes longer, and its vi­bra­tion at­ten­u­a­tion slows down. Zeng says, “Let me put it this way. The vi­bra­tion fre­quency de­clines with the ma­tu­rity of a wa­ter­melon.”

An ex­per­i­ment con­ducted at He­bei Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity shows that the vi­bra­tion fre­quency of im­ma­ture wa­ter­melon is above 189 Hz, that of ma­ture wa­ter­mel­ons is be­tween 133 to 189 Hz, and that of over­ma­ture wa­ter­mel­ons is below 133 Hz. Crisp sounds (high fre­quency) in­di­cate im­ma­ture wa­ter­mel­ons, while dull sounds (low fre­quency) in­di­cate ma­ture wa­ter­mel­ons.

Zeng also gives con­sumers some com­mon knowl­edge on how to pick tasty wa­ter­mel­ons. For ex­am­ple, if peo­ple claim that their wa­ter­mel­ons grow in Bei­jing's green­houses in win­ter, cus­tomers should never buy them. It's true that wa­ter­mel­ons are avail­able in Bei­jing through­out the year, but those grown in Bei­jing are only sold in mar­kets from May to July. Wa­ter­mel­ons grow­ing in dif­fer­ent places are avail­able at dif­fer­ent times. With this com­mon knowl­edge in mind, the gen­eral public can be­come smarter shop­pers of wa­ter­mel­ons.

Pol­li­nat­ing wa­ter­mel­ons

Mi­cro­bial in­ocu­lum

Wa­ter­mel­ons tied to dif­fer­en­ti­ate ma­tur­ing time

Pack­ag­ing wa­ter­mel­ons with anti-col­li­sion ma­te­ri­als

Test­ing sugar con­tent

Tap­ping the wa­ter­melon and lis­ten­ing to the in­side helps de­ter­mine its qual­ity.

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