You can make health-conscious fruit and vegetable consumers happier by growing your produce organically.
For grower Ron Cottle of Faison, N.C., that has seemed a particularly good strategy on the muscadine grapes he grows for the fresh market.
"We are just getting started in fresh market grapes, but so far we have had a good response to them. I think the fact our grapes are organic has helped. I expect we will double our business this year, and we are planting more vines for table grapes now."
Most of Cottle’s crops are grown organically. They include strawberries, blueberries and grape tomatoes.
All Cottle’s crops are sold fresh now, so the smoothie will represent a departure of sorts. “But I like the value-added aspect of the new smoothie we are developing,” he says.
Growing grapes organically is not an easy task. Weed control is particularly difficult because of the lack of chemicals approved for organic production.
Terry Bland, North Carolina State University horticulturist, says it is important to reduce weed populations as much as possible before planting. “After planting, utilize natural or synthetic mulches like landscape fabric, grain straw or hardwood chips,” he says. “Mulch around each vine suppresses weeds.”
Cottle uses a synthetic landscape fabric. “We put down cloth that has been approved for organic use and we put bark on top of the cloth to keep weeds down,” he says. “We plant grass in the rows and that keeps the weeds down.”
Cottle began pruning for the 2012 crop on Jan. 24 and says you have to prune organic grapes harder than conventional ones.
“That’s because you don’t want as much foliage in the organic,” he says. “You don’t need a lot of canopy. We need as much air flow as we can get.”
Utilizes single wire
He grows on a single wire rather than a double wire, and all his posts are black locust from the North Carolina mountains. “They are expensive, but we can’t use treated posts in an organic program,” he says.
Site preparation is a bit of a challenge. Muscadines don’t like “wet feet,” so when you are locating a planting, be sure to choose a soil with good internal drainage.
Fertilization, too, is a challenge. “Begin with a soil test, then use only approved sources of plant nutrients,” says Bland. “Keep in mind that natural fertilizers typically release nutrients over a long time period.” Some examples of natural fertilizers suitable for an organic program are poultry liter, compost and dried manures.
Irrigation is not a necessity, but can come in very handy. Drip irrigation along the row is usually the choice of North Carolina muscadine growers.
Insects can be a major problem. Which one causes the greatest long-term damage? Although a number of insects feed on various parts of grape vines, the grape root borer has the most damaging effect over time, Extension specialists say.
One possible way to reduce borers is the use of a mechanical barrier to prevent the adult females from depositing eggs.
Muscadines are resistant to many grape diseases, making them a good candidate for organic production.
Bill Cline, Extension plant pathologist at North Carolina State University, recommends the following disease management practices in organic muscadines.
• Plant resistant cultivars like Carlos, Summit, Tara, Triumph, Nesbitt, Noble or Supreme. As a general rule, dark-fruited cultivars like Nesbitt, Noble and Supreme have less disease than bronze-fruited cultivars.
• Use detailed pruning to remove dead stems and old clusters that harbor over-wintered infections.
• Apply sulfur or Serenade as needed for powdery mildew.
• Apply organic fungicides like Serenade as needed to suppress rots.
• Identify pests and keep records so you only control the pests you actually have, and only control those that warrant the effort.
• Expect more disease than in non-organic vineyards.
Cottle has high hopes for a new product he is preparing to market made from whole frozen muscadines. “We call it ‘Muscadine Delight.’ It is a smoothie. We grind the whole grape — including the seed and skin — and get a drink with a texture.”
It will be sold in a bottle. “It is very healthy and is high in phenols, anti- oxidants and proteins,” he says.
In addition to a straight muscadine flavor, the plan is to market a muscadine-blueberry blend and a muscadine-strawberry blend, he says.
“A 15.2-ounce natural fruit juice drink usually contains one gram of protein. Muscadine Delight will contain 14 to 15 grams of protein.”
Results of consumer tests have been extremely good so far, but there is a problem.
“The biggest challenge in marketing Muscadine Delight is going to be educating the public as to just what the muscadine is,” says Cottle.