Grant farmer is watermelon legend

By Dr. Paul Jackson
Assistant Professor of Agriculture
Louisiana Tech University

As the calendar rolls in to April and presses forward, we are met with the many visions of springtime. For some, that vision may be enjoying time planting flowers or a vegetable garden, observing birds that have flown countless miles from a southerly journey, or spending time with family and friends for outdoor barbeques. But for Richard McQuillin, the dawning of spring has brought the same vision for over fifty years.

Around 1960, Richard began farming watermelons around the community of Hargis in northwest Grant Parish. Delving into growing a few melons back then turned into a yearly tradition for which Richard is known for throughout the region.

From year to year, the number of acres in production fluctuated depending on the availability of land he could rent from people in the area.

On average, about 80 acres of soil was turned over each growing season and sown with traditional iron clad varieties such as "Jubilee", "Patriot", "All Sweet", and "Charleston Gray".

Yellow flesh melon varieties and cantaloupes could also be found taking up residence in a small part of a field each year.

By the fourth of July, a wooden sign with a painted watermelon would show up at the end of his driveway as a cue to those passing along Highway 122 between Montgomery and Verda to stop and buy a melon or two. Richard also had a loyal group of people over the years that would drive to Hargis to buy a load of melons and take them back to other areas of the state to sell.

People that live in areas around Natchitoches, Shreveport, Crowley, Lafayette, Echo, Pineville, and Alexandria have enjoyed the melons from McQuillin Farm. Production was at a peak level in the mid-1990's when Richard was farming about 150 acres and supplying a grocery store in Pineville and one in Alexandria with a truck load of about 500 melons every other day for two weeks.

As any farmer will attest, the challenges that come with large-scale agricultural production can be daunting. One can imagine how times have changed since the 1960's with innovations in equipment and cultural practices. Richard has steadily embraced the changes with upgrades to better tractors and implements and ways to sow seed, fertilize, and turn vines in the early stages of growth. However, another practice that has never required a change since he began farming is his ability to showcase the value of hard work and leadership to those that had the pleasure of working for him as a melon picker.

Early on, it was his sons, Ricky, Kyle, and Ronald that provided assistance picking and loading melons from the field straight to a truck or under a shade tree. As they grew up and went their separate ways, Richard would get young men in the community to work each summer. A crew of about five would spread out over about four rows in the field, pick and toss the melons to the next person until they reached the trailer where a person would stack them. Richard drove the tractor that pulled the trailer, and he would get out of the cab often to pick melons in the tractor path. Leading by example, he rarely paid his workers with cash that was not dampened with sweat. Richard emphasized the importance of doing the job correctly to save time in other areas.

He relied on his veteran pickers to evaluate new workers on whether they either kept pace or slowed down productivity. As daylight would break open the dark sky each morning, Richard would brief his crew on the day's work ahead while perpetually emphasizing the importance of punctuality, communication, taking ownership of job duties, and performing at a high level.

These characteristics helped set the stage for every melon picker to be a hard working individual throughout their lives. It helped them develop the high standards and work ethic they would expect from others once in a supervisorial role.

It may be that it is just an inherent trait for Richard to mentor young people as he was also a science teacher for 26 years. The majority of those years were spent working with students in middle school. He also drove a bus for the school system. Melon pickers that had moved on from having Richard as a teacher in the classroom still received early morning lectures in the field. For instance, on the topic of melon ripeness, he would explain how to make sure the tendril or "curl" on the vine was withered and dead, that there were black "bacterial" spots on the bottom of the melon, and that there was no shiny green hue to the rind. Richard's daughter, Cheryl, spent many hours of her childhood in the fields alongside him and can attest to the lessons taught there. She learned about preparing the fields to prevent erosion, seeding calculations, placement of turn rows, and photosynthesis. Cheryl stated, "For my dad, science came alive in the fields."

As I sat on the back porch with Richard and his lovely wife Evelyn last summer, I looked out at the big pecan tree in the backyard surrounded by melons with the tractor and trailer parked underneath. I thought about those peak years in the 1990's when me and four of my best friends then and now learned so much about hard work and respect. I wondered how many more years Richard would grow melons as he had scaled down to 30 acres of production, which is nothing to scoff at, especially at age 83. I thought about the areas of the state such as Washington and Union Parishes that are rightfully known for the number of melon farmers and acres of melons produced each year, and how the story of Richard McQuillin from Grant Parish needed to be told.

Richard has accomplished much more in his career than productive yields and successful travels to market. He has honed a craft that has developed into annual expectations from a community.

He has brought the sweetness of summer to many backyard barbeques. In some ways, his most outstanding accomplishment as a grower has been growing individuals.

Richard McQuillin, photo with load of melons in 2016

The watermelon picking crew from 1994-1996, left to right; Author Dr. Paul Jackson Assistant Professor of Agriculture Louisiana Tech University; Jarrod Pinder, Site Manager, Performance Contractors; Chris Pinder, Mill Quality Manager, International Paper; Mr. Richard McQuillin; Tom Gongre, Mechanical Project Manager, Universal Plant Services; Chris Brumley, Computer Technology Specialist, Northwestern State University. Photo taken March 2017