Date of Award

2013

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Department

Biological Sciences

First Advisor

Rebecca N. Brown

Abstract

This study investigated whether muskmelon (Cucumis melo L. var. reticulates), a high-value, warm-season vegetable, would be a suitable crop for tunnel production in southern New England, and if consumers would value local production of muskmelon. In New England, muskmelon (marketed as cantaloupe) is more commonly available to consumers at the supermarket than at farmers' markets. Direct-to-consumer sales are a common and important marketing tool used by growers in this region. The New England climate does not always provide the optimal growing conditions for muskmelon production. Tunnel production is becoming increasingly popular in New England because tunnels allow growers to extend and diversify crop production, and respond to consumer demand for increased production of local produce. The objectives of this study were to evaluate muskmelon tunnel production systems, test pollinator effectiveness within the high tunnels, and explore consumer preference for local muskmelon.

Three tunnel production systems were tested using a randomized complete block design: (1) three Gothic-styled high tunnels (22 x 6 m) equipped with a ridge vent covered with a single layer of 6-mil (0.153-mm), 4-year Tufflite IV greenhouse polyethylene , (2) six low tunnels constructed with galvanized wire hoops (0.6 meter height) and covered with perforated (2011) or slitted (2012) clear 1-mil, and 0.8-mil plastic, respectively, and (3) six control tunnels similar in construction to the low tunnels, but covered with Agribon-15 in 2011 and ProtekNet in 2012. During the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons, seven cultivars (`Athena', `Earlichamp', `Lil Loupe', `Sivan', `Sarah's Choice', `Sweet Granite', and `Tasty Bites') suitable for the region were examined for earliness, yield and quality response to each tunnel system. Quality was measured by percent soluble solids. In both years, the low tunnel produced the greatest yields and sweetest fruit, with significantly greater and sweeter production in 2012 when compared to the high or control tunnels. The high tunnel produced the earliest yields in both years. Not all cultivars tested were suitable for high tunnel production.

Pollination was tested by comparing yields from three pollination systems. Pollination systems were not replicated because only three high tunnels were available for use. Cultivar test plots provided replication (ten per tunnel) for the response variables (total yield and percent soluble solids). The three pollination systems were: European honey bee (Apis mellifera) hive within an open tunnel; eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) hive (adequate for up to 454 square meters) within a screened tunnel; and an open tunnel without a hive but accessible by wild bees and honey bees from nearby hives. All three systems produced quality fruit. Use of managed hives inside the tunnel is not necessary if wild populations or field hives are present.

In 2012, a survey and blind taste test at three Rhode Island farmers' markets was conducted to test for consumers' willingness to pay for local muskmelons, and their quality preferences for melons. Supermarket melons and melons grown for the production test were used for the taste test. A total of 102 respondents participated in the survey and blind taste test. More participants purchased melons only during the summer (46 percent) than throughout the year (43 percent), and only 13 percent rarely or never purchased melons. The majority of participants purchased cantaloupe at the supermarket, but more than 75 percent would purchase locally-grown melons if available at their farmers' markets. Most participants (58 percent) stated they would be willing to pay a premium price for locally-grown melons. When participants were asked to state how much more they would be willing to pay for their chosen melon from the taste test, values were not consistent. Sweetness was the most important attribute chosen by participants in deciding which melon sample they preferred. Analysis revealed that participants correctly chose the sweetest melon, but they were inclined to fail control trials (same-melon pairings).

The results of this study show that growers can successfully produce muskmelon in southern New England, with greatest success achieved using low tunnels, and that consumers would purchase locally-grown muskmelons priced at a premium over out-of-region melons. Choosing suitable cultivars for the region and production systems is important.

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