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UW-River Falls researcher experiments with winter-growing table grape

Brian Smith (in front) demonstrates pruning vines. He recently got a $97, 931 grant from the USDA. Smith said the money will be used to buy trestles for the vines, equipment like sprayers, plant materials and he has hired a grad student to help.

It takes a hearty soul to live through a typical Wisconsin winter. It takes an even heartier grape to lie dormant through months of snow and cold and bloom again in the spring.

Brian Smith, UW-River Falls professor of horticulture, is working on a new variety of grapes that will do just that.

Recently he got a large grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that will keep his research going.

The grapes we eat now come from warm climates -- California in the summer and early fall; South America from October to June.

Table grapes cannot survive Wisconsin’s harsh winters. That could change with a little match made in grape heaven.

Smith, with a Ph.D. in plant breeding, said he’s taken California grapes and mated them with wild grapes that grow in Wisconsin called the Riverbank grape -- a grape that somehow survives through harsh winters.

“The process starts with the very tiny grape flower,” Smith explained. “With a tweezers, I remove the stanum but leave the pistil. We don’t want it to self-pollinate.”

All the science aside, Smith said developing a cold hardy table grape is good for the Wisconsin economy.

“We figure if we can get a cold hardy grape, the industry would be worth about $18 million per year,” Smith said. “The labor income would be $4.3 million and it would add 350 new jobs.”

About 50% of all grapes grown in the U.S. are for wine. The other 50% are table, juice and raisin grapes.

That’s the market Smith believes Wisconsin could get a portion of -- 25-50% of the market -- if his new grape is what he hopes it will be.

In fact, Smith said if you combine Wisconsin’s $125 million dollars of wine grapes with the forthcoming table, juice and raisin grapes, it could rival another Wisconsin crop for economic impact -- the $300 million cranberry industry.

“The release of the newly adapted cultivars could dramatically transform a once unprofitable, unrealistic crop for this state into a thriving, flourishing, profitable grape industry,” Smith said excitedly.

And that’s all dependent upon a successful mating of the California and wild grapes.

“Success would mean the grape holds up to a hard winter, it would be disease and insect resistant, it needs to taste good, it should have a high yield, and be seedless,” Smith said.

And Smith won’t know that for a few years. He has, however, done this before.

Smith has already developed new strains of raspberries (he has six patents pending), the Black Ice plum, high yield strawberries, and he’s working on an apricot and a “very sweet” yellow plum.

For the complete story, see the Feb. 11 print issue of the River Falls Journal.