It was a strange season for fruit and vegetable crops in the Carolinas.

How strange was it? Well, for one day in September, a large vineyard in Dublin, N.C., opened the doors to the public and let anyone pick muscadine grapes, all that they wanted, for free.

“Our yield was so good we simply couldn't handle any more of them,” says Ron Taylor, a farmer and owner of Lu Mil Vineyards. “It started raining at just the right time, and when the crop matured and sweetened up, we had the biggest crop of muscadine grapes in the vineyard's history.”

It was more than the winery could possibly use, so Taylor decided that instead of just leaving the grapes on the vine, he would invite the community in to enjoy the bountiful harvest.

In terms of familiarizing people with the product, it was a big success.

“We must have had 1,800 people here, and I am sure some of them were first time visitors to the vineyard,” said Taylor. “We hope to see many of them back again.”

Even after the giveaway, Taylor said he probably left 50 or 60 tons of grapes in the field. “For muscadines, it was an exceptional year here,” he says.

But that was because the rain fell abundantly at the right times. Those same rains interfered with the production of other horticultural crops.

The rains fell badly for many growers in the Pee Dee area of South Carolina. Tré Coleman, manager of the state farmers market at Florence, says the timing of late-season plantings had been disrupted, so that while the “season” started two or three weeks early, it ended about that much early because growers didn’t have anything to sell.

“We'd started off early with the mild temperatures and favorable rain, but then we got too much rain at times,” Coleman said. “The water got us ‘between’ crops, and we never really caught up.”

It was a little bit of a disappointment since South Carolina farmers had been able to plant crops fairly late in the season. Then, they had the produce later than usual in the year.

“But they will try it again next season,” said Coleman. “It is a good strategy.”

Were some winners

There were nevertheless some winners among Palmetto state crops, he says. “It was an excellent year for watermelons, and the butterbeans were very good early. Tomatoes did well also.”    

Prices stayed strong throughout the season, and Coleman says there is still plenty of opportunity for farmers to retail their produce at a profit. And there is an obvious demand for some products.

“It’s clear that we definitely have a demand for more blackberries and blueberries than we are producing,” he says.

“The market could handle more peas and beans. And local honey has sold quite well — we could use more producers. And jar goods and other secondary products have really taken off.”

Farmers who sell at the North Carolina Farmers Market in Raleigh enjoyed a very good season, says Ronnie Best, market manager.

“Because of the rain, we had a lot of sweet corn, and the tomatoes and squash all turned out very well,” Best says. “And the fall season ran about like the last two years. We had a few farmers with produce to sell until the end of November.”

Ironically, the weather was too good for strawberries in North Carolina.

“We had a hot spell in April, and with other weather conditions, that caused a lot of strawberries to be dumped on the market early in the season,” says Best. “We couldn’t find a home for all of them.”

But some wound up being processed into jams, jellies and other products for sale after the harvest season glut ended.

Processing provides a product to sell in the fall or other times when you don’t have much else to sell, says Taylor, who processes produce on a contract basis in Elizabethtown, N.C.

“Processing adds value to the product, gives an alternate use to the product, and it can add years to the shelf life of the product. It’s becoming clear to us that a farmer can make more money on his added value products than he can on the products he sells fresh.”

His company, D’Vine Foods, has been offering this “co-pack” service for four years, and usually what it does is custom process the fruit and bottle it under a private label.

Taylor says 2012 was the first season it had had a large number of customers. “Farmers are becoming convinced that adding value improves their bottom line. As demand is being created for local products, products like this help meet it.”

There is still plenty of evidence that consumers still want locally produced food products.

One is that visits to farmers markets continue to grow. For instance, North Carolina Farmers Market manager Best told Southeast Farm Press that he was cheered and a little perplexed that attendance at the Raleigh farmers market was up from 3.4 million in 2011 to 3.7 million in 2012.

“That quarter-million spike is a little surprising, since we thought we were already at near capacity,” he says.

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