'Student' beats mentor, grows largest watermelon at Kentucky State Fair
By Chris Aldridge
Kentucky Ag News
Joe Miller ran around, pumping his arms in the air in celebration as the digital scale climbed to 276.8 pounds, making his watermelon the Kentucky State Fair’s largest entry of 2023.
Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture
Dr. Ryan Quarles, right, congratulates Joe Miller for
his 276.8-pound watermelon, the largest at the
2023 Kentucky State Fair and the second-largest
ever in the history of the contest.
Miller’s melon is the second-heaviest in State Fair history behind Frank Mudd’s record 293.5-pounder in 2019 (Miller finished runner-up four years ago at 179.5). This year, Miller’s watermelon won him $100 for first place, but perhaps most satisfying to Miller is he accomplished something he’s been trying to do for the past eight years – beat Mudd, who is Miller’s mentor. Mudd, who has dominated the State Fair contest for decades, placed second at 217.8 pounds.
“He’s the teacher; I’m the student,” said Miller, son of the late J. Robert Miller, who served as Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture from 1968 to 1972. “My dad knew Frank real well…. Frank taught me a lot of stuff about what I need to do and not do.
“A lot of it I picked up myself through growing watermelons to eat. We grew watermelons on our farm (near Tompkinsville, Ky.). I’ve grown watermelons since the ’60s.”
Joe Miller started growing big melons to compete in the annual Watermelon Festival in his hometown. His dad was also a champion watermelon grower who helped originate the festival.
“I won it back in 1986 with a 176.5-pound melon,” Joe said. “I held that record for 19 years.”
Retiring from his career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Kansas City, where he was a produce inspector, Joe returned to his native Monroe County and set the record again with a 208-pounder in 2020.
“I just like growing giant melons,” he said. “I just look forward to it. I’m retired now, so it’s my hobby, and it’s what I like to do.” Joe planted the seeds for his State Fair winner during the first week of March, then transplanted the vine into the ground in mid-April.
“I gave it special treatment,” he said. “I put it in a cot. That way, it’s not touching the ground. The belly, the bottom part, can grow down. If it’s just lying on the ground, it’s going to grow flat. So, if you have it in a cot, the belly will grow down. You can put more weight on them that way.”
Joe said big melons take constant attention.
“You’ve got to stay on top of them,” he explained. “You want to grow melons, not vines, so you’ve got to keep your vines trimmed up. I fertilize them through drip irrigation. Once every three or four days, I’ll give them a good shot of fertilizer.”
Frank Mudd, left, Joe Miller’s mentor, was
presented a first-place ribbon in 2019 from
Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. Ryan Quarles
for his Kentucky State Fair record
Watermelons are believed to have originated in the Sahara Desert. Wild watermelon seeds dating back to 3500 B.C. were discovered in Libya. Watermelons were domesticated in northeast Africa and cultivated in Egypt by 2000 B.C.
“Watermelons, being a desert plant, don’t really take a lot of water,” Joe said. “I’ve seen dry seasons where they would still produce. They can almost live off the morning dew. But you kind of push water to them to get them to grow big.”
Joe said you can eat big melons, but they taste best fresh off the vine.
“When you first pick them out of the patch and you cut them right then, they’re pretty good – a little stringy, but they’re still pretty good eatin’,” he said. “The problem with them is when you take them to the fair and they sit around for a few days. By the time you get them home, they start breaking down and they’re not good.”