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On vines of Spring Lake, you can see the future

If you visit Sonny Vergara's U-pick muscadine vineyard in the next few weeks, make sure to go by way of Old Trilby Road, driving under the canopy of big oaks and past the bright green pastures that start to hint at what his clusters of grapes will tell you for sure:

This is good land.

I've written about Vergara before — and about my vision that Spring Lake, historically one of the most productive agricultural regions in Central Florida, can be that way again.

But now it's harvest time, and these grapes are proof that this idea is not necessarily a pipe dream.

Because they're gorgeous.

The light varieties are bronze-colored. The dark ones have ripened to the almost-black shade of a plum and are bunched together like caviar in a spoon. The big ones, the golf ball-sized Supremes, are so sweet you swear they had to have been infused with high-fructose corn syrup.

Nope, Vergara said, it's all natural, grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, which is one reason some health-conscious customers are willing to pay more than $30 a gallon for his juice.

For U-pick grapes, he charges $2.75 a pound. With 500 vines and each vine producing 50 pounds of muscadines, which thrive in the hot, humid Southeast, you start to see the possibilities.

If he does this on 1 1/2 acres, what could you do on 10 or even 50?

Of course — and I knew this was coming — it's not that easy.

Raccoons and crows eat their share, said Vergara, former executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Government regulations have kept him from installing the equipment he needs to process and store juice on a large scale.

And with only a few other growers in Spring Lake — most of them smaller, backyard operations, according to county extension director Stacy Strickland — there isn't enough production to build a market for nonmainstream fruits like muscadines, thornless blackberries or Florida peaches.

And without a market, farmers can't expand to the point at which they can support themselves.

But Spring Lake blueberry farmers, which have the advantage of an earlier harvest than most of the rest of the country's growers, have tapped into a network of distributors and buyers. There are state grants available for muscadine growers, Strickland said. And every day, it seems, you hear more about small farmers growing for local buyers.

It's in a new movie, Food Inc. It's in the platform of a Democratic candidate for commissioner of agriculture, Eric Draper, who says good farmland should be considered as more than just subdivisions-in-waiting. Which would mean for us that, maybe, our economy could be based on something other than building houses.

Yes, I know. Draper's a long shot, and Food Inc. isn't exactly a blockbuster.

But the idea is out there, and is spreading, and hopefully isn't a fad. And where there's an idea, a market can follow. And, if there's a market, Spring Lake can supply it.

Don't believe me? Go out to Vergara's place — Friday through Sunday only, please. Look for the U-pick signs on White Road, east of Spring Lake Highway, and treat yourself to a couple of pounds of Supremes. You might drive home a convert.

On vines of Spring Lake, you can see the future 08/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 5:54pm]
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