The growing season for muscadines in North Carolina continued to go well after a promising beginning.

“We have a good fruit set now,” says 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 hasn’t been much disease pressure.”

That is a big contrast to 2009, when diseases showed up early and continued over the course of the season. Black rot and bitter rot infections were higher than normal.

“Growers who followed the recommended spray program maintained high fruit quality,” says Connie Fisk, North Carolina State University Extension horticulture associate. “Those that did not saw yield reductions due to lesions that caused individual flowers or developing berries to whither on the vine.”

This year hasn’t seen that much disease pressure, Jones says. “We certainly have the possibility (as of mid-June) of a very good crop.”

(For a look at how one North Carolina father-son farming team is doing in muscadine production click here.)

Jones, who retired last fall as Duplin County, N.C., Extension horticulture agent, was the main speaker at the association’s summer meeting and field tour held at Lu Mil Vineyard in Dublin in mid-June. In the vineyard, one of the points he and owner Ron Taylor emphasized was the importance of good pruning.

“Small grape vines will try to bear fruit in the first or second year, but that isn’t what you want them to do,” says Taylor. “It is better to prune those vines. Otherwise, what you will get is a bush with a thousand cordons. That can make for a tangled mass of unproductive wood.”

You want to get more vines up to the wire and cut all the others off, he says. “Try to get one healthy cordon in one section of the trellis,” he advises.

An unpruned grapevine will not yield much fruit, since under those conditions all the nutrients go into the canopy and bush. Also, pruning makes your vineyard more suitable to mechanization. Annual pruning is a key to abundant production.

Be sure to leave an appropriate amount of last year’s wood on the vine, Taylor adds. “One-year-old wood is the only source of fruitful shoots on the plant.”

There was some heavy rain early in 2010, but that wasn’t a problem.

“The rain we have had so far didn’t hurt,” says Taylor. “Most of the vineyards in southeast North Carolina have been planted on former tobacco land, and it is well drained.”

The high temperatures in mid-June probably had a positive effect. “Muscadines thrive on heat,” says Taylor.

Another topic of conversation at the field day was breeding. North Carolina State University conducts a breeding program for muscadines, and the growers at the meeting expressed some preferences for direction of the program.

“The top breeding priority is a new variety for the fresh market that is seedless and compares in yield to the juice variety Carlos,” says Taylor. “Fresh market grapes typically don’t yield as well as juice grapes.”

North Carolina growers need to channel their efforts into promoting the fresh market in every way they can, he says. “It is the marketing area that offers the most promise, and with good reason: Fresh muscadines are a delicious food that is a very healthy addition to a person’s diet.”

Unfortunately, the muscadine continues to face one big marketing disadvantage.

“It has only about a six-week ‘pick’ season (in the United States), and since it is not produced in any other country, you have to depend on juice or wine sales once the season is over,” says Jones. “But we are working on a way we can have this fruit available in year-round products.”

In the meantime, growers need to promote their product, since grapes don’t sell themselves.

“The muscadine is the most underutilized fruit we have,” says Jones. “We need to increase the exposure the muscadine gets. So much of the general public doesn’t even know what muscadines are, much less the health benefits they offer.”

The muscadine’s content of resveratrol, an antioxidant, is the highest among fruits, said Taylor, whose company has just gone to market with a muscadine juice drink with a tart but naturally sweet taste.

On sale in 10-ounce bottles at selected southern Han Dee Hugo’s convenience stores and other outlets, “Not From China / Made In Carolina” is 100-percent muscadine juice.

“We have been selling a no-alcohol wine, and this is essentially the same product,” says Taylor. “All that’s in it is squeezed grapes. We don’t color it or flavor it or add sugar water. We filter it to clean it out. It doesn’t have a syrupy taste.”

“Not from China / Made In Carolina” has the image of a locally grown product and responds to the demand for locally grown food, he said.

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com