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written by

Marianne C. Ophardt

WSU Extension Faculty

for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Some might wonder why the U.S. government spends over a billion dollars on agricultural research every year. The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) employs 2,100 scientists and supports 100 research locations, including the WSU Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser.

The ARS mission is to “conduct research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and provide information access in order to ensure high-quality, safe food, and other agricultural products, assess the nutritional needs of Americans, to sustain a competitive agricultural economy, enhance the natural resource base and the environment, and to provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities, and society as a whole.” Wow! A billion dollars seems like a lot of money, but if they can accomplish all this it’s worth it… in my opinion.

Grapes seems to be a crop of particular interest for ARS around the country. In our region Prosser researcher Julie Tarara, along with colleagues Paul E. Blom and John C. Ferguson, is field-testing an automated system for estimating grape yields. They measure the changes in tension of the trellis wire supporting the vines. As the vines grow and the grapes ripen, the tension on the wire increases. Knowing when and how much the tension is increasing can help growers estimate yields and adjust their cultural practices (watering, pruning, and harvesting) to maximize yield.

In the San Joaquin Valley of California a long-standing grape breeding program, dating back to 1923, has yielded varieties which have become some of our favorite grapes at the supermarket. This includes Flame Seedless, a popular red seedless grape; Crimson Seedless; Autumn Royal, a black seedless grape; and Princess, a white seedless grape.

Not resting on their laurels of the past and present, the current team of breeders in the program have introduced two new red seedless grapes that they have judged to be “top-notch.” Horticulturist David Ramming describes Sweet Scarlet as a specialty grape that’s “truly exceptional” with crunchy flesh, a thin bright raspberry red skin, and a hint of muscat flavor. Ramming also praises Scarlet Royal, the other new variety they’ve introduced. Its berries are “sweet, firm and meaty” with a nice dark-red color.

There are also ARS researchers around the country working with grapes. In Orgeon, they’re working on a way to assay or measure the amount of anthocyanins (those natural healthful compounds found in fruits and vegetables) in grapes and other crops. In Idaho, they’re studying more environmentally sound ways to grow grapes in a stressful desert climate. In New York, California, and Colorado they have established genebanks to preserve more than 3,000 different grapes, including wild, rare, and domesticated ones. These genebanks protect the rich and diverse gene pool of grapes from around the world.

In Mississippi, ARS is also supporting grape research. Mississippi! If you are a wine connoisseur, you may know that they don’t grow premium wine or table grapes in the southeastern U.S. However, they do grow muscadine grapes, also called “scuppernongs.” These small, three-fourths-inch diameter berries are quite flavorful. They’re used to make juice, jam, jelly, sauce, and even dessert wine. A native grape, muscadines thrive in the warm and humid southeastern climate and are resistant to a variety of pest problems that plague European wine grapes and table grapes. Research is aimed at changing muscadine production practices and breeding to produce larger, seedless berries with thinner skin, firmer flesh, higher amounts of sugar, and increased levels of anthocyanin and other phenols.

Muscadines are already a healthy choice when it comes to phenols. Scientists, James B. Magee and Betty J. Ector found that two ounces of unfiltered muscadine juice (or one serving of jam or one muscadine muffin) have the same amount of resveratrol as four ounces of red wine. While red wine is well known for its antioxidant punch, resveratrol (a heart-healthy phenol) is not found in high concentrations in other grapes, including wine grapes.

Thanks to the efforts of ARS scientists and others, grapes have become a very successful crop in Washington and elsewhere in the country. This is reflected in the growing wine industry, as well as in the production of quality table grapes, raisins, grape juice, and other grape products. However, ARS has also contributed to the success of the ornamental horticulture industry… but I’ll tell you about that another time.

Published: 1/6/2007 10:47 AM



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