Carolina research improving niche vegetables

Moving vegetables from east to west was once a pipedream for North Carolina vegetable growers. It’s still not common, but thanks to innovative research and marketing efforts at the Cunningham Research Farm in Kinston, N.C., the improbable is beginning to happen.

The Cunningham Research Farm is a unique cooperative project among the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, North Carolina State University and local growers. The uniqueness comes from a close working partnership among the three entities.

The first success came from development and marketing of specialty melons. Sprite melons and later canary melons have provided eastern North Carolina growers with a crop option that opens up markets to the west that have never been available to those in the area.

Sprite melons have been so successful this crop is no longer considered a niche crop. For many watermelon and cantaloupe growers in the area sprites are a commonplace crop.

In North Carolina under the "Carolina Specialties" label, the Sprite is carefully harvested, cooled, and shipped under constant quality control. Sprite melons are available in North Carolina from late June through mid-September.

The Sprite melon also has a distinct appearance in which the rind turns from cream to white with yellow mottling when ripe. The flesh is white and crisp much like an apple. The fruit will average from 1 to 1.5 pounds making it a convenient snack size for the consumer.

The melon surface will produce a few brown concentric 'sugar cracks' at the calyx (blossom end) when the fruit has a high sugar content. Sugar content in Sprite melons can reach over 18 percent, which is 25 percent to 30 percent higher than most other melons. One serving provides 150 percent of the daily value of vitamin C and has zero calories from fat.

Canary melons are sometimes known as Spanish, Juan Canary, Jaune des Canaries, and San Juan canary melons. Several varieties of these fruits have been developed at the Cunningham Research Farm.

Among many personal melons currently on the market, canary melons have bright yellow rinds and an oblong shape. Inside, the pale, cream-colored flesh is juicy, and the flavor is very mild.

In 2007, the researchers and marketing specialists at the Cunningham Farm began a lettuce and cabbage research project that may further the opportunities of eastern North Carolina vegetable growers to ship produce to the west.

Statewide lettuce tests are centered at the Kinston facility and at the Mountain Research Station in western North Carolina. If successful, the project may offer North Carolina growers a crop that can be grown somewhere in the state nearly 12 months out of a year.

Over 30 growers recently attended the first Eastern North Carolina Lettuce Field Tour. The tour featured commercial production and an on-farm Romaine lettuce variety trial at Tull Hill Farm, Hugo, N.C.

The on-farm Romaine lettuce demonstration was supported by a North Carolina Specialty Crops Program grant. The lettuce research at the Cunningham research station in Kinston was supported by a North Carolina Golden Leaf Foundation grant.

During the tour, Mark Abney, an entomologist at North Carolina State University gave a presentation on Insect Management in Romaine Lettuce. Abney warned growers that wireworms are a constant threat to high quality, high yielding lettuce and cabbage in eastern North Carolina.

With corn prices topping $7 per bushel it is no secret many crops will follow corn plantings. For lettuce, following corn is high risk because of corn wireworms. These insects can destroy a lettuce field and their life cycle of 3-5 years makes them a long-term risk to lettuce planting.

The North Carolina Specialty Crops Program started as a grassroots effort. In 1992, the Alternative Crops Diversification Committee, comprised of 14 farmers from nine eastern North Carolina counties, formulated a blueprint to aid farmers in diversifying into high value crops.

They sought the help of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Well over a decade later the initial program at the Cunningham Research Center in Kinston, N.C., has spread to a satellite specialty crops program at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville, N.C.

Nick Augostini, marketing director for the program, says, “The key to success of the program is marketing and field research and these are closely linked. One major advantage to our program, compared to many other new crop programs is that marketing research is initiated at the same time as the crop production research,” Augostini says. “Information is power, and well-informed growers can better position their products and services if they have the right information about the needs of buyers and consumers. Successful products tend to be those that respond to real consumer and trade needs,” according to Augostini.

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