Watermelon is the country's most popular melon, with cumulative annual consumption hovering around 5 billion pounds. On the cantaloupe front, Americans on average consume about 6 to 7 pounds of it each year.
This data, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also reveals where most melons come from, and the answer is, basically, "not Minnesota." Two-thirds of all watermelons sold in the U.S. are grown in Florida, Georgia, Texas and California, and California and Arizona are the top cantaloupe producers.
Which explains why the majority of melons sold in Minnesota supermarkets hail from elsewhere. That's a shame, because nothing beats the flavor, texture, juiciness and alluring scent of a locally raised melon, one that traveled from field to table in hours rather than days or weeks.
This is the sweet spot where farmers like Jeff Nistler are making a difference.
At his family farm in Maple Plain, about 25 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, Nistler cultivates a beloved trinity of summer favorites: sweet corn, tomatoes and melons. The latter two categories have been growing in prominence in recent years.
"I used to think of myself as a sweet corn farmer, and tomatoes and melons were an add-on," said Nistler. "And now, it's flipped, and I think of myself as a tomato and melon farmer, with sweet corn as an add-on."
He started growing vegetables and fruits in the late 1980s, a diversification strategy after a traumatic drought nearly forced his hog and commodity crops operation out of business.
At first, the focus was on sweet corn and pumpkins, but then Nistler started to dabble in melons, in part because his father, Erwin Nistler, favors them.
"It's such a great thing to share with my dad," said Nistler. "He's 88 now, and there's sort of a limit to what he can do, but he just loves the melons."
Over the decades, and guided by the wisdom and experience of several local farmer mentors — including Sharon Pew, Atina Diffley and the late Tim Kornder — Nistler has cultivated nearly 50 varieties of melons, always test-driving new ones and sticking with a few tried-and-true favorites.
"I like to experiment," he said. "Part of it is just curiosity, and part of it is the varieties are constantly improving."
This summer, eight different types of melons are coming into maturity at the farm, spread out across tidy fields and in a pair of greenhouses where the vines grow vertically — and rather dramatically — in thick, almost junglelike patches.
"When the melons are ripe, you can smell the greenhouses from 100 feet away," said Nistler.
A favorite variety is the Piel de Sapo, an ovoid-shaped beauty from Spain with a thick, toadskin-like rind.
"But the inside is white, and firm — like a pear — and sweet," said Nistler. "We probably only started growing it maybe three or four years ago, and I think it's our best melon. In hot weather, there's nothing better. Plus, we just like the name."
Familiar red-fleshed watermelon is a part of the farm's inventory. But when Nistler has a watermelon craving, he reaches for the smaller icebox varieties — so named because the orb-like melons can easily fit on a refrigerator shelf — with cheerful yellow flesh.
"I just think the flavor is phenomenal," he said. "They're sweeter and more refreshing."
Last year's melon crop was his best in memory. But this summer's early hot and dry weather has put a dent in the farm's melon output and Nistler expects the volume to be down at least 25%. (Fortunately, the tomato crop — there are 25 varieties — is booming.)
"Sometimes everything is just stacked against you," he said. "You get a year like this, and you think you've forgotten how to do things."
Visiting Nistler's Mill City Farmers Market stand is always a treat. Not only literally, because he's also selling breads — sourdoughs, plus sweet breads that incorporate his tomato and squash crops — but also because Nistler understands and emphasizes the interpersonal aspect of the farmers market experience.
"Some people are looking for that connection to the farmer, and it's a big part of my job to make that connection," said Nistler. "I like to be free of the actual transactions — I like to have someone else handle the money — so when people have questions, I can talk to them. I do enjoy that."
He's a source for all kinds of helpful melon tutorials. Storage, for example.
"If it's fully ripe, it goes in the refrigerator, and it can last for up to a week," said Nistler. "If it's not completely ripe, or it's a forgiving melon, put it on the counter. I like melons on the counter, because they're so aromatic. Sometimes it seems like it's good enough to just smell it, but of course you want to taste it, too."
Where to find farmer Jeff Nistler with his bounty:
Mother Earth Gardens (3738 42nd Av. S., Mpls., motherearthgarden.com) on Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m.
Mill City Farmers Market (704 S. 2nd St., Mpls., millcityfarmersmarket.org) on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Minneapolis Farmers Market (312 E. Lyndale Av. N., Mpls., mplsfarmersmarket.com) on occasional Sundays from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Note: "I have found that adding sweet red wine vinegar, such as Banyuls, not only brightens the soup but also gives it a cheery, not-too-sweet note that you just don't get from standard red wine vinegar," writes Lenny Russo in "Heartland" (Burgess Lea Press, $35). "The chive sour cream garnish accentuates the puréed onions, countering the natural acidity produced by the fruit and vinegar."
For chive sour cream:
• 1 c. sour cream
• 2 tbsp. freshly chopped chives
• 1 tsp. sea salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1 c. peeled, seeded and roughly chopped honeydew melon
• 1 tbsp. seeded and chopped jalapeño pepper
• 1/4 c. seeded and chopped green bell pepper
• 1/4 c. chopped green onions
• 1 c. diced white onions
• 1/2 c. chopped (and unpeeled) seedless cucumbers
• 1 c. husked and chopped tomatillos
• 2 tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
• 2 tbsp. Banyuls vinegar or other red wine vinegar (see Note)
• 1 tsp. fine sea salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
To prepare chive sour cream: In a medium bowl, combine sour cream, chives, salt and pepper. Whisk to blend well and refrigerate until ready to use.
To prepare gazpacho: In a blender, combine the melon, jalapeño, bell pepper, green onions, white onion, cucumber, tomatillos, parsley, vinegar, salt and pepper and purée until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to serve. To serve, ladle gazpacho into bowls and top with a dollop of chive sour cream.
Makes about 16 pieces.
Note: In place of cilantro sprigs, use small leaves or fine strips of spearmint. From "The Herbal Kitchen" by Jerry Traunfeld (William Morrow, $34.95).
• 2 limes
• 1/2 c. sugar
• 1/2 c. water
• 1 tsp. kosher salt
• 8 thin slices prosciutto (about 5 oz.)
• 1 bunch cilantro, washed and spun dry
• Half of a ripe melon, such as cantaloupe, honeydew or galia, peeled, seeded and cut into thin slices
Remove the zest from the limes in thin strips (using a citrus zester, not a microplane), reserving zest. Slice the tops and bottoms off the limes (discarding ends) and stand the limes on a cutting board. Cut off the pith in vertical strips, slicing just beneath the white layer (discarding pith), then slice the limes in 1/2-inch-thick rounds and cut each round in quarters.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the sugar, water, lime zest and salt and bring to a boil. Drop in the lime pieces and boil, uncovered and without stirring, for 8 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the marmalade to cool at room temperature (it will thicken and jell as it does).
When ready to serve, work with 1 slice of prosciutto at a time. Cut prosciutto slices in half and spread the middle of each portion with about 1/2 teaspoon of marmalade. Lay several sprigs of cilantro across each piece, allowing the leaves to extend over the edges, and top with melon slices. Wrap the prosciutto around the melon. These are best served as soon as possible; the melon slices will weep as they sit.