While many crops suffer from Georgia's drought, irrigated muscadine grapes are actually prospering.
"With muscadines, if they have good irrigation systems, growers actually prefer dry conditions during harvest," said Gerard Krewer, a small fruits scientist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "From a disease standpoint, the plants perform much better in dry weather."
Dry Weather = Cleaner Crop
Krewer said muscadine growers like slightly dry weather because it makes for a "cleaner crop with fewer diseases."
Gary Paulk of Paulk Vineyards in Wray, Ga., agrees. "When the weather is drier," he said, "the leaves don't get foliar diseases, and the result is cleaner vines and more fruit. If it gets too dry, the vines can suffer. But we aren't seeing that yet."
Paulk said this year is an above-average year for muscadines. And he should know. His family has grown muscadines for 25 years, and their current vineyard includes 300 acres of grapes.
Like the Paulk family, most muscadine growers in Georgia irrigate their vineyards. That's another reason this year's drought hasn't caused them to panic.
The More Water, The Better
Just because dry weather cuts down on muscadine diseases doesn't mean muscadines don't like water.
UGA horticulturist Scott NeSmith is in the final year of a three-year irrigation study. "We've applied different levels of drip irrigation to muscadines," NeSmith said. "And so far, the more water you give them, the larger the yield."
The muscadine yields in his research plots have increased by 35 percent over a two-year period. "With more water, the plants also set and carry more fruit, and the overall health of the plant is much better," he said.
The increase in water doesn't cause the plant to produce larger or sweeter fruit. "Muscadines aren't like table grapes," NeSmith said. "They don't get sweeter as more water is applied to the plant."
Paulk says 1999 appears to be a good year economically for muscadine growers. "The price of California grapes is higher this year, and that's helping our sales," he said. "If people are in the market for grapes, ours are a much better buy."
Paulk said the nutritional value of muscadines also helps with sales.
"Muscadines contain high levels of resveratrol, which is a compound doctors say helps prevent cancer and heart disease," he said.
The muscadine season in Georgia runs from early August through early October.
(Photo by Sharon Omahen, University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)