Agriculture: Growing Pains- Southeast- Feb. 2004
Researchers at the Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce are hoping to lay the foundation for St. Lucie County to add grapes to its agricultural mix, perhaps even a winery.
One reason it might work, according to the Florida Grape Growers' Association: Florida's 14 wineries have to import 400 to 500 tons of grapes a year to meet their production needs, says President Bob Paulish. And Florida grape growers say they can sell every grape they can grow.
One reason it might not: Bugs. South Florida has a year-round population of damaging insects, requiring more intense pest control efforts. Humidity and salt might also be problems.
But there is one variety of grape that is native to the Southeast. It's the hearty muscadine, which produces a slightly sweet wine in both red and white.
Ed Stover, a University of Florida researcher, has begun a project on two acres in Fort Pierce to gauge the productivity of 10 to 12 varieties of muscadine and bunch grapes for wine and table. In about a year, his team expects to begin planting cuttings.
When his research is concluded, the results will be available to anyone who is interested. Stover thinks the research might persuade some growers to consider converting grapefruit groves to grape vines. But he doesn't expect a wholesale transition. "We're just looking at grapes as one of many ways to maintain the vitality" of the county's agricultural economy, Stover says. "What is not known is what productivity can be."
The Florida Department of Agriculture is providing $5,000 in funding, and the University of Florida and Florida A&M University's Center for Cooperative Agriculture are adding $4,000.
St. Lucie County economic development manager Larry Daum says a niche for grapes would also help the county even out its employment because grapes are harvested in the summer, when the county's unemployment rate jumps as much as 4%.
Paulish says Florida's grape industry, which includes less than 1,000 acres of grapes and produces about 300,000 bottles of wine a year, will never be able to compete on a grand scale because state law doesn't allow wineries to directly export their product. But, he says, industry data show that Florida ranks second in the nation for wine consumption, so there's still plenty of room to grow.
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