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Frankenfruit—for real—draws big bucks

Food prices are high, but for the $100 watermelons and pumpkins Tony Dighera grows organically in Fillmore, California, demand is outstripping supply.

That's $100 wholesale, by the way. Retail is $200.

"I've got people from Dubai calling me to order these things," he said.

What's so special about his crop? Dighera has managed to grow produce into specific shapes. Using special molds, his pumpkins turn into Frankenstein heads, and his watermelons are grown into cubes or hearts. Dighera said the Japanese have long been growing square watermelons, which sell for hundreds of dollars at retail, "but you can't really eat them." His are edible.

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Dighera started his quest more than four years ago at his Cinagro Farms ("that's 'organic' spelled backwards"). He was not born into farming, but came to it after 30 years as a contractor for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"I was looking to do something different," he said. "I knew there was something that you could do that could turn out fun."

Trying was one thing. Succeeding was another. Dighera said he tried 27 varieties of seeds and spent $350,000 to $400,000 to figure it all out.

"The learning curve is obviously very steep," he said. "If the fruit is too small, obviously it won't fit into the mold." And if it's too big? "Mother Nature doesn't like to be messed with too much, and if you distort the fruit too much, it won't ripen, or it ripens and it doesn't taste good."

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This year will be his first full year of production, and he expects to make back his entire investment and then some. As many as 8,000 molded pumpkins and watermelons will be sold to local stores, Whole Foods, and Urban Fare in Canada. Dighera said 95 percent of the Frankenstein pumpkins are pre-sold.

By growing in molds, the skin of the melons and pumpkins is smooth, almost waxy, leading one to think they aren't real. However, this reporter was in the field and saw with her own eyes the produce growing in the molds. We cut open several of them—and even ate the watermelon—to verify authenticity.

Melons and pumpkins grown into specific shapes by farmer Tony Dighera sell for as much as $100 apiece wholesale.
Jane Wells | CNBC
Melons and pumpkins grown into specific shapes by farmer Tony Dighera sell for as much as $100 apiece wholesale.

Dighera said he's amazed that no one else has figured out how to do this, and he remains very protective of his molds and growing processes for fear someone will steal his ideas. He may eventually license the technology or sell molds to other farmers. He's even developed a way to grow marble eyeballs into his Frankenstein pumpkins. "The eyeballs take it to another level."

Next up: embedding logos. There are lots of plans for new products, but he will divulge only one. "A very large vodka company wants a watermelon in the shape of a vodka bottle, which we could do."

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Will selling $100 Frankenfruit make Tony Dighera rich?

"That's the plan," he said.

—By CNBC's Jane Wells.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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