New table grape could survive bitter upper Midwest weather

RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- 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, University of Wisconsin-River Falls...


RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- 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, University of Wisconsin-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.


Most grapes 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.

While he hold a plant breeding doctorate, Smith started fiddling with hybridization on his father’s farm in South Dakota when he was just a kid.

“My dad was an amateur grape breeder, completely self taught,” Smith said. “I think I was about 8 or 9 when he showed me how to create a hybridized watermelon.”


Those years of experience and passion for the industry is what drives Smith to keep creating new varieties of fruit that can survive our winters.

And there’s also a market for it.

He calls this market “locavores” -- people who want to buy locally grown products.

Much of the fruit we consume in the winter comes from outside the U.S., according to Smith.

“Locavores recognize that locally grown fruits are fresher, taste better, have more accountability for food safety and are more environmentally sustainable,” he said. ““I like to say that locally grown fruit is 2,000 miles fresher.”

Smith believes current wine grape growers could easily expand to include the new table, juice and raisin grapes to their current space and thinks other small fruit vegetable and fruit tree farmers could be enticed to add them, too. He said they have the equipment, knowledge and marketing strategy to do it.

Smith, besides being a UWRF professor and researcher, is also a state extension specialist that travels across the state to Kenosha and north to Bayfield to help farmers.

He plans to plant his first crop of grape seedlings in June on the UWRF Farm One between the horses and the new sports facility.


Then he’ll have to wait four to six years before he gets any fruit. That’s typical, he says, for any kind of new variety of fruit -- and it will be worth the wait.

“Grapes have a special place in people’s hearts,” Smith said. “They are the No. 3 snack food in the U.S.”





2320574+021316.A.RFJ_.Coldweathergrape (1).jpg
UWRF Professor Brian Smith holds up a yellow plum he hybridized. He is now working on a hybrid table grape that could handle the cold winter. Smith has been breeding various fruit varieties since he was a child.

What To Read Next
Get Local