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Fruits thrive, Dixon Days die

DIXON – The hills of Dixon don’t flow with milk and honey, but the famous melons grown there have some people wondering if they might. 

The sugary-sweet fruits have amassed a huge following over the past 24 years, as Dixon Melons, Inc. grew from a small hand-tilled backyard plot into one of the region’s most well-known farming operations. 

Owners Joey Hettick, Harley Hettick, Cassie Silvernale and Faus Silvernale say melons will be flying off the shelves for the rest of the summer as the season’s first picking of melons went to market last week.

“You better get there early,” Cassie said before taking the first pick-up truck bed full of melons to Polson to sell last Friday. “They’ll be gone pretty quick after we start selling.” 

True to Cassie’s word, 10 minutes after the farmers market opens the trickle of customers turns into a feeding frenzy as people queue up 10-deep to get a free sample and to buy bags of melons. Joey deftly cuts off pieces of the melons and hands them to people, while taking orders. The customers are all smiles, and no one can resist buying one of the fruits. 

“They are addictive,” Harley jokes. “The FDA or DEA hasn’t found out about us yet.” 

The small mountain of melons is half-gone in 30 minutes. Many people are loyal, longtime customers who were hooked long ago on the fruits. 

Carole Wheat and a friend wave off a sample. The former Dixon resident lived in the community before the melons were grown there and saw the fruit’s fame grow. She knows how good the melons are without sampling. 

“They are excellent,” Wheat says as she takes two home. 

Exactly what makes the melons so delicious is anyone’s guess, although the Silvernales and Hetticks have some ideas. 

“It’s like Harley always says, ‘The best fertilizer is a farmer’s footsteps,’” Cassie said. 

Each year Harley does the plowing in three different pastures. The plants are brought in from a greenhouse in Portland and started in May. Faus works to keep the plants watered and cared for. No pesticides or chemicals are used, and everything the farm does would typically fall under the category of “organic,” but the company opts not to pay thousands of dollars and jump through hoops to get certified. Instead they call the melons “homegrown,” and let customers know about the circumstances under which the fruits were raised. 

Midway through the summer Cassie and a couple of hired hands go through and weed the patches. To grow a good melon, it needs to be hot and dry. Cassie said there seems to be a microclimate that keeps it a few degrees warmer and dryer in Dixon than in the surrounding area that makes it good for growing. 

After a few months of loving care and barring any spoilage from plundering deer, bear, or a rogue hailstorm, the melons are ready to be picked and distributed by early to mid-August. 

Joey is in charge of the distribution schedule. At the height of the season two delivery trucks will make daily runs to stores along Highway 93 as far away as Kalispell and Missoula. All major Lake County grocery stores carry the melons, with the exception of Safeway and Walmart.

The melons will also be loaded into the back of pickup trucks and driven to farmers markets in Polson, Missoula, Butte, Bozeman, and Great Falls. The Hetticks and Silvernales have tried to get into the Kalispell farmers market, but say the rules require the farm to be located inside Lake County to be able to participate. Dixon Melons, Inc. has attempted to appeal the rule since the farm is within eyesight of the Lake County line, but have not had any luck thus far. 

It is hard for Joey to predict exactly when the melons will be ready to be shipped. Stores and individuals start calling at the end of July, but it takes until mid-August to get into full swing. 

After last week’s first round of early melons — smaller melons that Harley jokes would be slapped with a “personalized” label if a large marketing firm were involved — there’s usually a short lag before more get ripe and a steady flow emerges until mid-September.

Joey said following Dixon Melons, Inc. on Facebook is the best way to find out where and when the melons will be in town. 

By the end of July, the page is already flooded with requests from adults who sound like anxious children squirming before St. Nick makes an appearance at Christmas time. 

Judy Allen of Missoula asked if it was harvest time yet. 

“All my neighbors and myself are trying to be patient,” Allen wrote. “Love your melons.” 

Some people ask if the melons can be shipped to other states around the country, but to do so would likely be in vain. The melons are vine-ripened, which makes them delicious, but also prone to quickly spoil. Other melons are bred to sit on shelves for weeks on end in stores. Dixon melons are bred for instant deliciousness. 

“They sugar up the last 24 hours and they are so good,” Joey said. “They are very perishable though, so they do need to be refrigerated.” 

Harvey has a solution to the threat of a spoiling melon. 

“Eat them,” he said. 

Many melons have been gobbled up in eating contests at Dixon Melon Days, a festival typically held mid-August to celebrate the fruits, but this year people will have to nibble from the comforts of home. 

After 21 years, the community celebration that included the Farmer Olympics, a 5K run, a basketball tournament, wheelbarrow races, horseshoe tournaments, a seed spitting contest and parade has died. 

“They just couldn’t find anyone left to organize it,” Joey said. “Most of Dixon is retired. We’re just getting old and don’t have the people with all the energy it takes to put on a big party like that. It takes a lot of time organizing and delegating and there’s nobody left to delegate to. It was a good run and we had a lot of fun doing it, but you know sometimes these little town things fizzle out.” 

 

 

 

 

 

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