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Tropical season threatens Georgia muscadine crop

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

With the fall harvest set to begin, Georgia muscadine growers are warily eyeing Tropical Storm Katrina, hoping the tropical season will be kinder to them this year than last.

"We had three storms last year, and they cost us about half of our crop," said Charles Cowart, owner of Still Pond Vineyards near Arlington, Ga. "We don't need any more of that."

Cowart said he had planned to begin harvesting his 160 acres of muscadine grapes this week. "But they're just not ripening," he said. "We've put it off now until the first of next week."

As Katrina began threatening south Florida, the Georgia muscadine crop was looking good. "We've got a better-than-average crop," Cowart said. "The sugars are low, but we've got some pretty fruit, large fruit."

No problem

The low sugar content isn't a problem, he said. "If everybody else had high sugars and we were the only ones around with low sugars, it might be a problem," he said. "But in a high-moisture season, everybody's got low sugars. That's just a given."

The rainy summer, he said, will just "make the sugar man happy." Some sugar has to be added to any muscadine juice being fermented into wine. The lower the sugar content, the greater the need for added sugar.

The summer's abundant rainfall has created a more serious potential problem, though: a high risk for tropical storm damage. The crop just can't handle a lot of rain right now.

"It would split a lot of grapes," Cowart said. "There's just so much water they can hold, and they can't go beyond that. The grapes are ripening now, and if we get a lot of rain now they'll take up more water than they can hold."

Wind damage

High winds could hurt the crop, too, said Paul Wigley, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Calhoun County.

"High winds can put a bunch of grapes on the ground," Wigley said. "And once the grapes hit the ground, you can't use them in juices or wines."

Cowart, who makes juice and wine products with all of his muscadine crop, said Tropical Storm Frances hit his farm with 50 to 60 mile-per-hour winds in early September last year and shook off a lot of his grapes.

"The grapes aren't as ripe now as they were with Frances," he said. The heavier the grapes, the more susceptible they are to being blown off their vines by high winds.

Georgia has about 1,200 commercial acres of muscadines. The crop begins ripening in August in south Georgia. The harvest moves northward through the upper piedmont area, where it ends in early October.

Many Georgia gardeners grow muscadines as a backyard fruit. UGA Extension experts figure the state has probably twice as many backyard muscadines as commercial acres. Your county UGA Extension agent can tell you how to grow them.

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

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

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