Muscadine grapes at the Upper Piedmont Research Station in Reidsville.
Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Each month we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.
There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting the Upper Piedmont Research Station in Reidsville.
September is N.C. Wine and Grape Month and a perfect opportunity to highlight some of the research going on at our stations with muscadine grapes. Muscadines are grapes that are native to southern North America and are for sale this time of year at farmers markets and grocery stores. The grapes are also used in wine production. Muscadine grape research is conducted at Upper Piedmont, Sandhills and Castle Hayne research stations by James Ballington, professor emeritus of horticulture science at N.C. State University.
“The research we are doing is mostly to identify additional breeding varieties,” Ballington said. “We are looking for large-fruited grapes for the fresh market (retail sale), cold hardiness, and for red-fruited wines, grapes that maintain a stable color.” The grapes are also evaluated for disease resistance. “We do not spray the grapes,” he said, “we let nature take its course. With some varieties, fruit rot is a problem.”
White muscadine grapes at the Upper Piedmont Research Station.
Only about two acres of grapes are grown at Upper Piedmont Research Station. However, the research going on here is important to study cold hardiness of the vines. “Last winter was really cold and you can see a lot of damage on the vines,” Ballington said. “However, the fruit that the vines are producing is promising. There is uniform ripening within the clusters.” Muscadines are typically harvested by picking individual berries. If the grapes could be harvested in clusters, similar to the way table grapes are sold in grocery stores, they would have a longer shelf life.
Ballington’s trials will continue a few more years with these vines. “The next step is replicated trials,” he said. “This is where we compare the fruit being produced to what is considered to be industry standard. For white grapes the fruit would be compared to the Carlos variety, for red grapes, the Noble variety.”
After the replicated trials, Ballington would hope to propagate the cuttings and do observation trials with grape growers. He hopes the research leads to better grapes for the wine and grape industry.
Compared to other crops at the Upper Piedmont Research Station, maintaining the vineyard could be seen as easy. “We keep the middle rows cut, undergrowth sprayed back with herbicide and the trunks cut back,” said Joe French, station superintendent. But a two-acre vineyard is just one of the projects going on at this 835-acre research station.
“Right now we are harvesting about 20 acres of sorghum,” French said. “We are also gradually getting back about 50 cows from the Upper Mountain Research Station.” The station is sending its bull calves to Butner for a feed-efficiency study. “Animals are like people,” French said. “Some eat a lot and gain a little, others eat a little and gain a lot.”
Other work at the station includes horticultural trials of medicinal herbs. The Upper Piedmont Research Station is also home to one of the longest soil science trials, with research on no-till corn and soybeans ongoing for more than 30 years.
For the past 15 years, the station has hosted the N.C. Angus Association Spring Feeder Sale on the first Saturday in May. The station is also home to the Rockingham County Farmers Market, which is held Wednesdays and Saturdays from May to October. The market offers produce and crafts by local farmers and artists, and the station hopes that in the future the market can be used to test market new crops being grown at the research stations. In addition, the station hosts the 1.5-mile Chinqua-Penn Walking Trail, which is maintained by station staff and open to the public.
With harvest time here for many crops and cows returning home, it’s a busy time to be in Reidsville.
The Upper Piedmont Research Station is home to about 150 head of cattle.