South Carolina muscadine producers have a good thing growing, according to a man who knows a thing about grapes — the concord variety.

"You have a great wine product that can compete with anything I've ever encountered," Joe Falcone, newly elected president of the National Grape Growers Association, said at a recent meeting of the Carolina Agri-Solutions Growers Association (CASGA) at Clemson University’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center. His organization owns Welch’s, the most famous name in concord grape juice.

The CASGA meeting was held in conjunction with R.A.I.N. Conference IV, hosted by Clemson, Coastal Carolina and Francis Marion universities. R.A.I.N. stands for Research, Agriculture, Industry and Nature. The conference was designed to acquaint growers with ongoing efforts to find ways to add value to niche crops such as muscadines and small fruits and vegetables.

Falcone, who grows 430 acres of grapes in Silver Creek in New York state, is that area’s largest producer. He encouraged growers to embrace the concept of a cooperative. “With a co-op you’re invested. You throw your money and ideas into the pot. You all work toward the same things,” he said. “In our co-op we do lobby work and sponsor research."

He indicated a cooperative could make development of value-added products easier than if a grower tried it alone. He said that owning their own processing facilities for products such as juice or wine would produce more profit for growers than relying on others for the processing.

“I remember reading about muscadines maybe 25 years ago in a viticulture textbook, but I confess I’ve never seen the fresh fruit” Falcone said.

Several value-added products developed by Hyman Vineyards of Conway were on display during the conference, and drew Falcone’s attention. “I was impressed with the hand creams with nutraceuticals in them, and the health supplements” he said.

Becoming more focused will be important for CASGA, according to Falcone. “When I sat in on your CASGA board meeting, I could not decide what your organization is trying to do,” he said. “Some of you were talking about muscadines, some about nutraceuticals and others about agri-tourism,” Falcone said.

“If you receive $100, what are you going to spend it on?" He advised the organization not to try to be all things to all people. “Good advice,” said Greg Hyman, owner of Hyman Vineyards and president of CASGA. He acknowledged that membership is about equally divided between small fruit and vegetable growers, those who want to be producers and others who are interested in agri-tourism opportunities.

“We will survey members to find out what they want. If we get focused correctly, we can get more than one thing done,” he said.

“Falcone brought up a good point. Are we an organization for grapes, juice, fruits and vegetables, nutraceuticals or agri-tourism?” He said that muscadines will remain the driving force behind CASGA as the organization moves forward.

Hyman said that officers of CASGA were re-elected for the coming year. He remains as president; Bob Childers of Woodruff is vice-president; Jody Martin, county agent and head of the South Carolina Muscadine Initiative, is secretary; and Jim Irvin of Charleston is treasurer.

CASGA was organized in 2006 to bring together efforts in the areas of purchasing and marketing for traditional and non-traditional crops for South Carolina agriculture in the 21st century. Adding value to crops is one of CASGA’s goals.

Adding value and keeping more of the profit on the farm is important as the age of South Carolina farmers increases, according to Martin. “We need to get youth back into agriculture, and the way to do it is through innovation and profit,” he said.

Martin noted that the farm value for one acre of tobacco is about $3,750. “The retail value is $225,000. That’s adding value, but the middlemen gets the money, not the farmer,” he said.

Turning crops like muscadines into nutritional supplements offers one way to add value, according to David Gangemi, director of the Institute for Nutriceutical Research at Clemson University. He told conference attendees that INR is involved in clinical trials for the Department of Defense looking at enhancing human performance with muscadine, cucurmin and quercetin.

Trials are being conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina. “If it proves out, muscadine extracts could wind up as an additive in meals ready to eat,” he said.

Larry Boyleston of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture said the effort to develop branding for South Carolina crops — rolled out in May of 2007 — has the potential to help revitalize the rural economy by creating an emotional preference for South Carolina products. “Locally produced products are perceived as being fresher and more wholesome than foods grown for long-haul shipping,” he said.

Consumers can soon look for signs of emphasis on South Carolina products in restaurants in a “Fresh on the Menu" campaign.

Several vineyard owners told their success stories during the conference, including Jim and Ann Irvin of Irvin House Vineyard in Charleston County; David Masters of Lu Mil Vineyard in Dublin, N.C.; Casandra Rush of Williams Muscadine Vineyard; Greg Hyman of Hyman Vineyard; and Robert Clark of Marion.

Campbell Coxe, who owns Plumfield Plantation in Darlington County, said he found a niche crop with rice in the mid-1990s. He produces Carolina Plantation Rice, an aromatic variety which is packaged in a cotton-cloth bag. “We sell smell,” he said. “Taste and smell begin to wane after a year unless you keep it in a freezer.”

Coxe said that Plantation Rice brings back memories of the 1800s, when South Carolina grew 75 percent of the rice in the New World. He said he did not begin making money from his rice until he built his own rice mill and stopped sending it to Arkansas for processing.

The first day of the conference, Connie Fisk, muscadine specialist with North Carolina State University, gave interested producers some tips on pruning with a demonstration in the one-acre South Carolina Muscadine Initiative vineyard at the Pee Dee REC. She said freeze damage in the previous growing season caused lots of split wood in vines in the Carolinas, and many growers will have to do some severe pruning.