The most promising commodity for Southern fruit and vegetable growers in the near future could very well be seedless table grapes.

Carl Cantaluppi, area horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Granville and Person counties, says the bunch-type grapes have tremendous potential. And there is no lag time until they can start being grown — farmers here have all the technology they need to grow them now.

“For anyone who grows high-value horticultural crops, seedless table grapes can be another good addition to their product mix,” he says.

Note though that this crop is expensive to produce. “You grow them on a trellis, and you need trickle irrigation,” says Cantaluppi. “I would estimate it takes about $12,000 an acre to get started, and all of it is up front. And you don't expect the first harvest until the third year.”

But there certainly is good reason for optimism. A trial at a farm north of Oxford, N.C., that started in 2005 gave very good results this year when it was harvested for the first time. The farmer, Doreathy Booth, harvested about 900 pounds from one acre and was able to sell the grapes at a farmers market in Durham, N.C., for $3 a pound.

“That made a gross of $2,700 for that one acre, and that is good enough to warrant more testing,” says Cantaluppi.

The customers who bought them at the market raved about their flavor, he adds. “These are large, sweet, juicy grapes, not the Thompson seedless grapes consumers here are used to that don't have much taste.”

The Oxford trial used 14 different seedless table grape varieties from the breeding programs of Cornell University and the University of Arkansas, and many appear adapted to North Carolina conditions.

“So even though seedless table grapes have not been grown on a commercial scale in the North Carolina Piedmont before, we have varieties we can plant,” says Cantaluppi. “They hold tremendous potential as a high-income fresh market specialty crop for retail sales.”

The harvest window is from mid-July to late-August, which is later than other small fruits that are still producing at that time. That can be a boon in keeping labor utilized.

The “how to” of seedless table grapes is in place, so now it's a matter of communication. Cantaluppi says there will be promotions at farmers markets and other efforts to make people aware they can be grown successfully.

And if you want more intense information about seedless table grape production and other promising specialty crops, plan on attending a school to be held in Roxboro, N.C., on Feb. 29. The location will be the Person County Cooperative Extension Center, 304 South Morgan Street.

The table grape grower Doreathy Booth will be there to describe her experiences, but she will be just one of a number of growers who will speak. Some of the other topics to be covered include:

  • Could cancer protection help sell muscadine grapes?

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

    Larry Cagle, a muscadine grape grower in Vale, N.C., will explain how to plant muscadines in heavy clay soils and describe his creative marketing techniques to attract customers.

    Connie Fisk, a North Carolina Extension horticulture associate, will give an overview of muscadine grape production in the state and will discuss the effects of the Easter Freeze of 2007 on production.

  • A perspective on efficient specialty crop production.

    Charlie O'Dell, a blueberry-asparagus-blackberry-grape grower in Blacksburg, Va., and a retired Virginia Tech Extension specialist, will describe his operation, how he got it started, and how it has grown over the years.

  • Pawpaws picking up?

    Milton Parker, a retired Horticulture agent with the North Carolina Extension Service, will describe the large pawpaw planting he oversees in southern North Carolina. He will explain what you need to do to be successful in growing this high-value specialty crop, and he will talk about the varieties he has planted.

  • Could asparagus be an answer?

    Cantaluppi will also discuss the results of the first harvest of an asparagus variety trial, comparing the yields of his 13 hybrid asparagus varieties and will make recommendations for commercial production.

The cost of the one-day school is $25 per person for the first individual in the family or business and $15 for each additional person. Both fees will include lunch, which will be provided.

Pre-registration is required.

For a copy of the program, pre-registration form, map and a list of local motels in Roxboro, contact Carl Cantaluppi at 919-603-1350 or e-mail him at carl_cantaluppi@ncsu.edu.