Developing new specialty crops like grapes is one way of growing and revitalizing rural areas of Alabama.

Elina Coneva, an associate professor in Auburn University’s Department of Horticulture, dreams of making the grape a profitable specialty crop for Alabama farmers. The only thing stopping her and her team of Extension agents is the threat of Pierce’s Disease.

Pierce’s is a serious threat to the cultivation of Vitis vinifera, or European wine grapes, in the United States, especially in the humid subtropical climate of the Southeast. In a grapevine infected with the disease, a gel forms in and clogs the water-transporting tissue of the plant, which causes vine death.

There is no known method of prevention or control of Pierce’s Disease, but horticulturists like Coneva are testing grapevines that are bred to be resistant to the deadly disease in Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station research centers across the state.

A few years ago, Coneva and Jim Pitts, superintendent of the Chilton Research and Extension Center, teamed up with the Alabama Wineries and Grape Growers Association to plant an experimental vineyard at the Clanton facility that included three newly bred 87.5 percent Vitis vinifera selections with various ripening seasons. The three selections are hybrids with Pierce’s Disease-resistant species.

The grape selections grew well and in 2011 fruit clusters were removed from the plants to provide optimal conditions for the growth and development of the vine root system and enhance the plant vigor and longevity.

In 2012, all three grapevine selections produced their first commercial crop, and a number of measurements collected helped evaluate vegetative growth, productivity and fruit quality of the three varieties.

Among the three selections tested, the late-maturing vine produced the largest crop in 2012 and 2013, respectively, but the early- and mid-season selections also yielded crops within the optimal range for V. vinifera grapes.

“During the two years of our study, the late-season selection produced the highest number of fruit clusters per vine, showing a tendency to overcrop ” Coneva said.

The mid-season selection had the largest size clusters in 2012, while the early-ripening selection produced the largest clusters in 2013. Late-season selection had the sweetest berries with 24.3-percent soluble solids content.

Coneva said the preliminary results on the overall performance of the newly intoroduced Pierce’s Disease resistant V. vinifera grapevine selections in Alabama are encouraging.

“The knowledge we gain through this project will help us develop the best management practices and production system recommendations, all of which are vital for establishing a sustainable grape industry and enhancing the competitiveness of Alabama-grown specialty crops,” she said.

There are now more than 500 acres of vineyards and 15 wineries within Alabama, which is a good start. With Coneva’s help, Alabama could be home to a bursting industry and new farmers that come with it.

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