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Last call for U-pick muscadines in Valrico, where a farmer takes a liking to peaches

VALRICO

By now, the end of summer, the grapes are pretty much falling off the vines. The dark red and shriveled ones tumble into the tall grasses in farmer Randy Thompson's back yard. The golden, juicy ones roll tantalizingly in the hands of U-pick crowds.

But if Thompson, 70, knew what he knows now, he wouldn't have planted those rows and rows of muscadine grapes through his 3 acres.

He would have put down peaches. A bright fleshed, succulent variety that could compete with the kind of storied peaches for which Georgia is known.

Never mind that he says his U-pick muscadine fields, holding out for one last harvesting weekend, rake in as much as $1,000 on Saturdays.

Never mind that he's one of few Hills­borough cultivators of those thick-skinned, seeded grapes, in a prime spot at Miller and Lumsden roads to offer the ripe gems to everyman and not just winemakers. "You're in the middle of U-pick heaven out here," Thompson said, "and that's a fact."

Never mind that, in his four years experimenting with the grapes, his wife has started an impressive jellymaking operation. She makes jelly by hand in small batches, refusing to increase production by converting to an assembly line. "That," Thompson remembers her scolding him, "is not the way you make jelly."

It was his wife, a day care operator, who told him to stop getting underfoot and get a hobby. "So that's what I'm trying to do," Thompson explains. But for this retired business owner, maybe his hobby shouldn't be grapes.

His back yard is a jumble of his dabbling. A few dragon fruits defy his negligence and sprout along trellises. There is one grapefruit tree and one tangerine tree. There are three koi ponds.

The pomegranates are gone, pulled out of the ground to make room for his newest hobby. The pomegranates were an offshoot of a juice-drinking kick, derived from his self-proclaimed "health nut" status: "As you can see, I need to be," he said, gesturing to his generous belly and bum knees.

With the blown-out knees, he travels around his swath of farmland on a golf cart, which has actual golf balls rolling around a compartment from his neighbors hitting them over the fence.

He reaches out of the golf cart to pluck from the bunches, popping juicy grapes straight into his mouth. He chews to break the skin and taste those layered flavors, then spits out the mangled casts and seeds.

Grocery store grapes have nothing on muscadine grapes, he says.

"That's just a grape," he says, dismissing that garden variety.

"This," he says of the muscadines, "is 10 times better."

Still, if only he had known about peaches.

"Everyone in Florida wants a fresh peach," Thompson said.

And he doesn't mean just any peach. He's talking Florida peaches.

Like his scorned muscadine grapes, peaches fall far behind Hillsborough County's leading agricultural commodities — strawberries, tropical fish, citrus, tomatoes. They don't have a festival in their honor, no queen to reign over the jewels.

But maybe Thompson is on to something.

Researchers at the University of Florida have big plans for peaches. Stone fruit breeders have created hybrids that bloom without as much chilly weather. They have snagged a valuable window for Florida in a competitive peach market, according to Mercy Olmstead, UF's extension stone fruit specialist. After Chilean peaches have dwindled in February and before Northern buds have ripened in May, yellow Florida peaches with a firm flesh make their debut.

South of Interstate 4, this is a hot crop among citrus farmers looking to diversify, Olmstead said, to offset the hit of diseased groves.

So no, Thompson says, he wouldn't have planted the grapes. He would have planted a bigger orchard than the small square of baby peach trees he has now, just a few feet tall but full of promise.

People like muscadine grapes, he said, but he thinks he could have them begging for peaches.

Just wait for the spring, Thompson said, when he hopes his peaches will be ready for picking.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

. If you go

Last call for muscadines

It's the last U-pick weekend of the season at Randy Thompson's muscadine grape vineyard at 1104 S Miller Road in Valrico. The vineyard opens at 8:30 a.m. today and Saturday. Pick your own grapes for $1.99 per pound. Homemade jellies are also for sale. For information, call (813) 451-3391.

Last call for U-pick muscadines in Valrico, where a farmer takes a liking to peaches 09/01/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 5:31am]
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