Marketing a mess for North Carolina muscadine growers

Marketing a mess for North Carolina muscadine growers

• One big reason for the good production was the almost disease-free spring. • The big yield led to over-production, and some of the excess production had no home. • Demand was flat, or at least less than projected.

Muscadine growers in southern North Carolina came through the hot summer with surprisingly good yields.

But much of the luster was lost because demand didn’t keep up with production. To make matters worse, there was some unexpected competition from Georgia.

On the production side, though, it was a season to remember.

“It was a very good year,” said Connie Fisk, North Carolina Extension associate specializing in muscadines. “We saw high yield and for the most part, good quality. “

One big reason for the good production was the almost disease-free spring, said Whit Jones, president of the Muscadine Grape Growers of North Carolina. “Diseases didn’t appear until very late in the spring, and it was dry, so there wasn’t much disease pressure.”

An estimate of total production in the state wasn’t available, but Fisk pointed out that there were some nine-ton-per-acre yields of the popular Carlos variety. On an average crop, the yield range for this variety might be from five to eight tons, she said.

But the big yield led to over-production, and some of the excess production had no home, Fisk said.

Also, demand was flat, or at least less than projected. “When the vines that are just now coming into production were first established, the wineries thought the demand now would be greater,” she said. “Less growth actually took place, probably because of the poor economy.”

So with high yields and lower-than-expected demand, growers were already looking at a marketing problem.

Surprise competition from Georgia

Then, there was surprise competition from grapes produced in Georgia that were sold at a very low price — about $350 a ton, $200 a ton or so less than the lower end of the North Carolina price scale.     

These grapes came on the North Carolina market because of competition they in turn were getting from grapes from Florida that have just begun to appeal to wineries.

So Tar Heel growers who found themselves without a marketing home tried aggressively to find somewhere else to sell their grapes. Those who couldn’t get a buyer generally didn’t go to the expense of picking their uncontracted grapes, and it was common to see unharvested vineyards in the Carolina countryside late in the summer.

What does all this indicate for 2011? The events of 2010 were an unusual combination of circumstances, and growers could reasonably hope for a better market for wine grapes next season.

“If the economy bounces back, we might see more North Carolina wine sales,” said Fisk. “However, I would discourage anyone from planting new vineyards for wine grapes. But there is room for an increase in fresh market grapes.”

The North Carolina muscadine crop definitely maxed out the market this season, and then some, said grower George Barber of Council, N.C.

But it was a good crop for him in terms of production. “The weight turned out well,” he said. “The yield was around seven tons or maybe higher. And the sugar content was just right.”

Barber, who farms with his wife Sonya, contracts with Duplin Winery. “We had 18 acres of vines this year. We may put in a few more acres but don’t plan any major expansion.”

There was one side effect of the weather. “We decided to pick our grapes two weeks earlier than normal because of the dry conditions,” said Barber.

Dry weather took something of a toll the last two or three weeks of the season, said Ron Taylor of Lu Mil Vineyards of Dublin, N.C. “Nevertheless, it was a large crop and a really sweet crop.”

There was an unusual occurrence of black rot in muscadines in eastern North Carolina, Taylor said, but growers were able to control it effectively with the fungicide manzate.

Taylor, who grows grapes himself and also contracts with other growers for grapes for his food processing plant D’Vine Foods, said he hopes farmers learned the risk this year of “wildcat” muscadines.

“Don’t plant any grapes without a contract!” he urged. “Some growers a few years ago got ambitious and planted without contracts. Those grapes were all looking for a market this year.”

Fresh market muscadines are the fastest growing segment in muscadine marketing, said Fisk. Some form of direct marketing like farmers’ markets, roadside stands or pick-your-own is a good way to sell fresh market grapes, she said.

There is a new farmers market in nearby Elizabethtown. It is located in a 60-year-old grocery store that is a local landmark, and hopes are high for good consumer traffic. Grower Walter McDuffie of Elizabethtown thinks it could be a boon to muscadines grown for the fresh market.

“It is in its early stages and has a lot of potential,” he said. “I hope it will open doors to a lot of the agricultural products we have.”

McDuffie may eventually sell fruit and vegetables there but probably not muscadine grapes since his vineyard is planted entirely in varieties for wine rather than the fresh market.

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