UF Develops Method To Grow Exotic Galia Muskmelons

February 20, 2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Investors seeking the next big trend in produce might want to remember the name “Galia.”

An exotic, hybrid muskmelon from Israel, Galia can now be produced in the Southeast using techniques developed at the University of Florida to mimic the arid desert climate the melon requires.

“If it’s grown right, Galia is the best melon you’ll ever taste,” said Dan Cantliffe, professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It’s similar to cantaloupe but with a sweeter, more intense flavor.”

Sporting a golden, netted rind and juicy green flesh, the Galia is Europe’s best-selling muskmelon variety, he said. Brought to the United States in the early 1990s, Galia is becoming a common sight in U.S. supermarkets, which import the melons from California, Europe and Israel, he said.

“Florida consumers are paying $5 to $6 each for Galia already, so the market is there, and it’s established as a premium item,” Cantliffe said. “Now we can produce top-quality Galia here in the South, so it’s just a matter of time before someone does it commercially.”

Because Galia was bred from melons native to desert areas, it’s critical that the plants receive no rainfall during the period of fruit maturity, he said. If they do, the fruit rapidly absorb moisture, diminishing their flavor. The few farmers who’ve grown Galia outdoors in Florida have had disappointing results because of the state’s rainy, humid climate.

Like all muskmelons, Galia must ripen on the vine for the fruit’s sugar content to reach its peak, Cantliffe said. Once picked, the melon cannot grow sweeter. The closer Galia are grown to the marketplace, the longer they can ripen before harvest is necessary.

“From both the farmer’s and the consumer’s standpoint, it seemed obvious that we needed a way to grow Galia in the Southeast, without hurting the quality of the fruit,” Cantliffe said. “Florida is probably the optimal location, because we have warmer winters and more sunlight, so Galia could be grown throughout the region.”

After studying Galia production in Israel, the world’s foremost source of the melons, Cantliffe developed a method to grow Galia with so-called “protected agriculture” techniques. Instead of using outdoor fields, farmers can raise the plants in greenhouses or above-ground tunnels with a soil substitute called perlite made from crushed volcanic rock. Water and nutrients are supplied by a carefully prepared solution circulated through the perlite.

“Protected agriculture involves bigger start-up costs than outdoor farming, but for a high-value crop like this, the investment can be worthwhile,” he said. Galia grown under protected agriculture conditions might command the same prices as melons currently imported to Florida, depending on supply and demand.

Despite higher start-up costs, protected agriculture can be more profitable than conventional agriculture because yields are much greater and fruit quality is better maintained.

“In our UF greenhouses we average five fruits per plant, compared to one fruit per plant for field-grown Galia,” he said. “Also, the number of plants per unit area is much higher with protected agriculture, so overall you may harvest 10 times as much fruit per square foot.”

Cantliffe, chairman of UF’s horticultural sciences department, has been growing the melons on an experimental basis for several years but doesn’t produce them commercially. However, his methods have already caught the attention of Florida farmers.

“Several growers have experimented with Galia for the last season or two, but of course they have to make their own decisions about how committed they are to this crop,” he said. “The size of the market for locally grown Galia will depend on how quickly producers can get a supply to retailers.”

Once consumers in the Southeast get a taste of Galia grown using protected agriculture, demand likely will rise, said Zvi Karchi, developer of the Galia melon and retired head of the cucurbit, or vine crop, breeding program of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization. Karchi also cooperated with Cantliffe to initiate the Florida/Israeli Protected Agriculture Project at UF.

“Consumers are always looking for new products, and in the United States Galia are still a novelty, even though they’ve been available in Europe for 20 years,” said Karchi, who lives in Kiryat-Tivon, Israel. “This could help Florida farmers compete more effectively in the marketplace. Galia is a proven product, and because it’s a hybrid, farmers who grow it can maintain their investment — you can’t take the seeds from a Galia and grow them yourself.”

Karchi developed Galia melons in the 1970s by crossbreeding two existing strains of muskmelon, naming the fruit after his daughter, Galia. The hybrid was bred for high adaptability to intensive irrigation and fertilization, especially under protected agriculture techniques. Galia melons are grown for the European market primarily in Israel, Turkey, Morocco, Spain and also in Central American countries such as Guatemala. Worldwide, the total crop is 300,000 to 500,000 tons per year.

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