Muscadine grapes sold unprocessed on the fresh market could be the next hot item in the grape industry.

At least that is what Ron Cottle of Faison,N.C., thinks. In the past year, he has put a major effort into providing grapes ready for the table from his area of eastern North Carolina.

“We have put in 35 acres of our own and have arranged for another 35 to 40 acres to be grown for us by other growers,” says Cottle. “We are going into this somewhat on faith: We are banking that the word will get around about the health benefits of muscadine grapes and that the market will continue to grow.”

Muscadine grapes have been much in the news recently because of resveratrol, an antioxidant that protects the body from cancer.

Cottle is a large-scale fruit and vegetable producer, growing blackberries, strawberries, blueberries and grape tomatoes among many other commodities. He is hoping that muscadines will fit in well with some of the operations he already does, especially packing.

“Muscadines make use of the same packing machinery we use for our other products,” says Cottle. “We hope they are going to help us keep that machinery busy.”

Now, he packs blueberries in May and June, then spring grape tomatoes in June and July and the fall crop of grape tomatoes in mid October. Once his muscadine vines start producing, they will fit into the packing schedule in late August and September.

But that system won’t get up and going for a while yet: Muscadine vines take a while to get established. “We just planted our muscadines last May,” Cottle says. “I hope to have some to sell next August, but it takes three years to reach full production.”

Cottle plans to put his muscadines into one-pound clamshells and sell them in chain grocery stores like Food Lion and Harris Teeter. This is generally how he sells all his fruits.

There is definitely room for more plantings of fresh market muscadines, says Connie Fisk, North Carolina Extension associate specializing in muscadines. “It is the fastest growing segment in muscadine marketing. “

But finding a market before you get into fresh market muscadines is crucial. “You should know how you are going to sell the crop, “Fisk says. “A farmers’ market, a roadside stand or a local grocery store are often the choices for a beginning fresh market muscadine grower.”

Pick-your-own is also a possibility, especially in areas where consumers are familiar with the flavor of muscadines.

It is harder to start growing for major grocery chains, in part because they usually require a minimum of at least 10 acres. “They have to be able to fill a truck to make it worthwhile to send one to your farm,” Fisk says.

That is a lot for a grower to begin with. “I recommend one to two acres to start,” she says. “That is enough to start in fresh market or roadside stand sales.”

If you start small, you can always add acreage later if the market continues to grow, says Fisk. “You will learn as you go, so your later plantings will be better than your first.”

If you intend to sell to local groceries, be sure they’re interested, says Fisk. “And if you intend to sell at a farmers market or a roadside stand, survey the current muscadine offerings — you don’t want to step on your neighbors’ toes.”

Selling fresh muscadines will bring in more income than muscadines for a winery, says Fisk, but will require more management, including extra labor for hand-harvesting.

Muscadines are a good choice for diversifying most farms.

There have been some very positive developments in muscadine breeding, and some important varieties for the North Carolina fresh market include Nesbitt, Summit, Supreme, Tara and Triumph.

“A lot of local grocery stores still carry the Carlos variety, which was bred for wine,” says Fisk. “But it doesn’t have as good an eating quality, and when refrigerated, it turns a little brown. The newer ones are better quality.”

The fresh market is a fast developing category for muscadines, says Ron Taylor of Dublin, N.C., who owns LuMil Vineyards and has had success processing his muscadines into wines. “Its potential has not even been scratched yet. But the market for processed muscadine products — jam, jellies, juices and wines — are pretty much filled for now. The supply is ample.”

• Choose a site with good water and air drainage, says Fisk. Soil type is important. Fortunately most Coastal Plain soils are well suited to growing muscadines.

• Send a soil sample to NCDA for analysis. You'll apply lime and fertilizer based on the results of the soil test.

--Fisk strongly recommends investing in irrigation. “It is better to have irrigation and not have to turn it on than not have it and then have to deal with drought.”

Drip irrigation along the row is usually the choice of North Carolina muscadine growers, she says.

• Order plants in the summer of the year before you want to plant. You will need 218 plants per acre for the single-wire trellis system.

• Install your trellis before you plant. “Most growers use single wire trellises,” says Fisk. “We recommend one vine for every 20 feet of row planted 18 inches from the post. You train the vines to grow up on the wire.”

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com