Missouri has long been known as the Show-Me State. More recently, it has been recognized for its geology with the nickname as the Cave State. Given the history of the agriculture products grown in the state, it might be hard not to place Missouri as a grape state.
In the mid 1800s German immigrants established some of the first wineries around Hermann. Today, more than 120 wineries across the state could classify Missouri as one of the country’s elite wine producers. And for almost as long as there have been vineyards, the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources has been a part of Missouri vino. From the state’s first entomologist C.V. Riley, an MU professor, who helped save the French wine industry, to the work from the MU Grape and Wine Institute, CAFNR is leading the way for research and growth of the wine industry in Missouri.
“While wine grape production is well-established in Missouri, the production of seedless pop-in-your-mouth table grapes is just beginning,” says Andrew Thomas, horticulturist at the Southwest Research Center. “Very few people are growing table grapes in the state; therefore, a huge untapped market is available for producers.”
At the Southwest Research Center in Mt. Vernon Andrew helped establish a 2-acre vineyard in 2008 for research on wine-grape varieties and rootstocks. Within the large vineyard, a single row of tables also were planted. A second table grape harvest was recently completed. A similar study is also taking place at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin.
“We planted several table grape varieties including ‘Mars,’ a seedless Arkansas variety that is the standard grown in some parts of the Midwest,” says Andrew. “The rest are experimental selections from Cornell University. We planted yellow, purple and pink grapes and are evaluating their performance under southwest Missouri conditions.”
Some of the grapes are similar to the popular Concords, which often are found in juices and jams. Others have a very different, even sweeter taste with a “muscat” and smoky finish.
“We also get to taste-test the grapes!” exclaims Andy. “They taste just spectacular and I would take these grapes over any you can buy in stores.”
The costs to implement rows of table grapes are similar to wine grapes. They require the same trellising and irrigation systems and could be a great addition to vineyards. A bonus to growing table grapes is they can be harvested two to three weeks ahead of many other grapes, thus creating an added flow of income.
One of the main goals of the research is to find out which varieties work best in Missouri for growers such as Mike Rippelmeyer, who owns 4M Vineyards.
“We have close to an acre of Mars and other Arkansas varieties that are producing about 7 tons an acre a year,” says Mike. “We are looking to expand into other varieties to gear ourselves for the future of the industry.”
Since 1909, 4M Vineyards has been growing grapes and now boasts 19 acres of more than a dozen different varieties. Concord has historically been the top seller for the vineyard near St. James, but as times change, so has the market.
“We are seeing less people buying Concords and looking to try the new varieties,” adds Mike, a 1994 MU Plant Sciences grad. “These new varieties could really get people into something different.”
For many growers like Mike, the biggest key to table grapes is finding a market. Some varieties have a short shelf life and need to be refrigerated after picking, thus finding buyers even before planting is crucial. Although once refrigerated, most table grapes can be kept in good condition for up to three weeks in cold storage to help increase potential sales opportunities.
Andrew adds that once a producer brings high-quality, locally grown table grapes to any market, they will sell like lightning if free samples are provided. Compared to most grapes sold in grocery stores, the varieties being studied at the Southwest Research Center are a much higher quality. Most consumers might even be shocked upon tasting them, creating an instant sale and plenty of return customers.
“One easy way to sell would be if you already had a winery selling wine, why not throw in a few rows of table grapes to sell?” adds Andy. “Even better would be if you were selling produce at a farmers market and added table grapes.”
Mike admits that the “locavore” trend is booming right now and any locally grown products would do well for farmers across Missouri.
“Virtually none of the grapes you buy in stores are from Missouri,” he adds. “Why can't we get more Missouri-made products to our consumers? I really hope that in the future the market for these grapes expands. It’s always great to support the local folks.”