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Georgia muscadine crop taking on new look

By Dan Rahn
Georgia Extension Service

Charles Cowart grows muscadine grapes. Sweet, healthful, wonderful muscadines. But he knows he can't just go on selling grapes.

"There's a whole other group of consumers out there who aren't concerned with how great this product is," says Cowart, owner of the 150-acre Still Pond Vineyard near Arlington, Ga. "They're more interested in how easy and fast it is."

Like the rest of Georgia's commercial muscadine growers, Cowart makes most of his money, by far, selling his grapes to fresh-produce markets. The harvest, which started about two weeks early this year in mid-July, is about half over.

Limited market

Unlike many growers, though, Cowart sees a limit to traditional markets.

"We've relied very heavily on the fresh market year in and year out," he said. "But that market is fading. The younger folks coming up are looking for something quick and easy. They don't want to spit seeds. And we have to give them what they want."

For now, Cowart is courting those markets with grapes he can't easily sell on fresh markets. "We're developing other products with the grade-outs," he said. "There's no problem with the juice, but the grapes just aren't as eye-appealing on the grocery shelf as they need to be."

For the people who love that mellow-sweet muscadine flavor but don't want to spit seeds, Cowart's vineyard produces three products: a bottled nonalcoholic blush of 50-percent muscadine juice, a smaller bottle of 100-percent juice and a muscadine-jalapeno jelly.

Future of industry

"I think this is the future of the industry," Cowart said. "If we don't diversify, we're going to be in trouble. The old days of growing everything for fresh markets are fading fast."

The Paulk family near Wray, Ga., takes a different approach to the same challenge.

"With grapes, every fifth row needs to be a pollinator row," said Gary Paulk, who runs the 300-acre Paulk Vineyard along with his father Jacob and brother J.W. "Some of the grapes on the pollinator rows are better suited for processing than for fresh markets."

Instead of letting the pollinator grapes go to waste as they once did, the Paulks deseed them and blast-freeze them as a slurry in 30-pound buckets.

Jellies, jams, juices

"We then sell that for making jellies, jams and juices," Paulk said. "We sell these products here. We don't make them, but they're made with our grapes."

The Paulks don't stop there. They dry the seeds they removed from the grapes, grind them and put them into capsules to sell as a health supplement. Muscadine seeds (and other parts) have been shown in scientific studies to have many health benefits.

The Paulk and Still Pond vineyards make up nearly half of Georgia's 1,000-acre commercial crop. Their experiments with new products signal a significant trend.

Small price to pay

"I think spitting out a few seeds is a small price to pay for the taste and other benefits muscadines offer," said University of Georgia horticulturist Gerard Krewer. "But if you don't want to deal with the seeds, these new products offer a great way to enjoy the muscadine grape."

Krewer, a small-fruits specialist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said California grapes may be cheaper, "but they don't have half the flavor of a Georgia-grown muscadine. The health benefits of muscadines are much higher than in bunch grapes, too."

Some people, though, are becoming less agreeable with spitting seeds, no matter how wonderful the taste or how great the benefits.

"If the industry is going to expand, it's probably going to be with new products," Krewer said. "The demand for muscadine juice in juice products and wineries is strengthening. I think this is a bright area for growers."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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