|Millions of Southerners' love of muscadine grapes creates the potential for a big new market.|
"Muscadine grapes are our crop," said Charles Cowart, who runs Still Pond Vineyards with his wife Susan. On 160 acres of vines last year, the Cowarts produced tons of grapes.
For 20 years the second-generation grape growers grew muscadine grapes for the fresh market. But slowly the market began to decline, and last year something big happened.
Disaster in a Truck
"We had about 2,000 cases of grapes sitting on this truck in South Carolina," Cowart said. "Oh, gracious, we had close to $28,000 sitting in that truck."
And suddenly, they had no market for the grapes. Their year's profit was sitting on a truck with nobody to buy them. And within a few days, the grapes would rot.
"We had to do something," he said. "We get paid once a year, so we had to make sure we were going to get a paycheck."
A Sweet Idea
With 20 tons of fruit on a truck to nowhere and a year's hard work at risk, Susan Cowart had an idea. She remembered tasting bottled muscadine juice at a trade show and thought the idea would bail them out.
"We need to do this," she said. "I think it will work."
But even as the couple decided to try bottling and selling their own nonalcoholic muscadine grape juice, Charles wasn't sure about the venture. "He's always needed a little prodding when it comes to spending money," Susan laughed.
|From potential disaster, Charles and Susan Cowart have produced a sweet new product with brisk sales.|
He doesn't need prodding now. And both Cowarts are laughing, selling case after case of their juice. "Sales have been fantastic," Charles said. "I was shocked at the response we've gotten. I had no idea so many people enjoy the taste of muscadine grapes."
Gerard Krewer, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, sees a bright potential.
"There are about 65 million people who live in the South," Krewer said. "Not all of them like muscadines, but quite a few of them do. So it should be a fairly large market."
In the fresh-grape market, he said, muscadines are available only about 10 weeks in the late summer and early fall. "But this bottled muscadine-juice product will be available year-round," he said. "And I think it will be a popular item for muscadine lovers."
The Cowarts apparently have hit on something new in south Georgia. "To my knowledge," Krewer said, "this is the first time a farmer actually has taken this on as a value-added project."
"We're hoping this will turn into something we can rely on in the future," Charles Cowart said.
The Cowarts have always had to pick their grapes within a four-week window and sell within 10 days, he said. With the bottled juice, though, they can sell the fruits of their labors 12 months out of the year.
Perhaps the best part is that they bottle the juice themselves. "Why sell our product to other people and let them benefit from it?" Susan Cowart said. "We need to benefit from it ourselves."