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Kiwifruit have the highest vitamin C content of any fruit and are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E.
Specialty Crops in Alabama
BY LEIGH STRIBLING

           We all know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease, certain cancers, and other chronic diseases.
           Alabama fruit and vegetable growers are contributing to a supply of fresh, delicious, and interesting produce for consumers. And they are getting help from Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES) scientists at Auburn University and Alabama A&M University.
           These scientists are studying several fruit and vegetable crops to determine their viability as specialty crops for Alabama. Specialty crops are high-value crops that can be grown on limited acreage and still be profitable. Satsumas, kiwifruit, and shiitake mushrooms are among those grown in Alabama now. In addition, Asian pears, jujube, and pawpaws show strong potential in AAES research.
           Satsuma oranges—small, sweet, and nearly seedless fruits—were introduced to the state in 1878 and for several decades were a thriving industry. But they lost favor with farmers when several large freezes before World War II destroyed crops and all but eliminated plantings. Today, AAES researchers are studying how to make Satsuma plants hardier in freezing temperatures and to reestablish their production in South Alabama.
           Producers recently took a giant step toward getting Satsumas in the marketplace when they received a grant to purchase equipment needed to wash, wax, and sort Satsumas for marketing and selling. Chain stores require fruits to be graded and sorted at exact sizes.

AAES researchers are studying how to make Satsuma trees hardier in freezing temperatures and to reestablish their production in South Alabama. Marketing is a top priority for the Alabama Satsuma market.

           Producers and researchers agree that marketing is a top priority for the Alabama Satsuma market. In a recent survey of consumers in nine cities, including sites in Alabama and Georgia, agricultural economists from Auburn asked grocery store shoppers about their preferences regarding Satsumas. Results from these surveys will let producers know, among other things, when to harvest their fruit and send it to market.
           “In addition to further research on marketing Satsumas,” said Bob Ebel, associate professor of horticulture at Auburn University who coordinates Auburn’s satsuma program, “our plans include evaluating the health benefits of Satsumas and other Alabama-grown fruit and designing a grower cooperative.”
           Kiwifruit is another specialty crop with market potential. Kiwifruit, which are native to China, are subtropical plants, which means they don’t tolerate extreme cold. But since 1985, the sweet-tart fruit has been grown successfully at the Chilton Research and Extension Center in Clanton, Alabama.
           Nutritionally, the small kiwifruit is a powerhouse, labeled by some these days as a “nutraceutical,” or a food packed with health benefits. Research indicates kiwifruit are the most nutrient-dense of all fruits. They have the highest vitamin C content of any fruit and are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E.
           Based on the productivity of the kiwifruit crop at the Chilton Research and Extension Center, scientists estimate commercial growers in that area of the state could realize impressive yields as high as four to five tons per acre. They are convinced that in central and south-central Alabama, kiwifruit could be a profitable specialty crop
           While there may be local and regional markets for many of the specialty crops grown in Alabama, there is a unique market for skiitake mushrooms: colonies in outer space.
           AAES scientists at Alabama A&M University are examining the feasibility of growing exotic mushrooms in space. The project, funded by NASA, aims at developing a self-sustaining environment for future space colonies and is being conducted in cooperation with Purdue University and Howard University.
           A&M scientists are studying the ability of fungi to degrade crop waste that is inedible by humans, producing shiitake, oyster, and other exotic mushrooms in the process. Some of the plant waste would be ground up and fed to tilapia fish. Waste from the fish would be used to fertilize crops. In this closed-loop system, the wastes of one system are taken in, used, and processed by another system.
           Alabama A&M was selected for the study because of its strong food science and agricultural research program, which has focused on production of shiitake mushrooms since the 1980s. Shiitake mushrooms are an excellent source of protein, vitamin D, B vitamins, and minerals. The market potential for shiitakes is great because of their unusually high nutritional value and because they can be cultivated in both large and small operations.
           Asian pears, jujube (pronounced JOO-joo-bee), and pawpaws are other fruit crops that have potential for Alabama growers, and research is underway to solve several production problems.
Asian pears are prolific producers that are being studied by AAES researchers at Alabama A&M University and Auburn University. They are susceptible to the bacterial disease fireblight and tend to bloom early, an affliction which also affects peach crops.
           “Fireblight describes the blackened, burned appearance of damaged flowers, twigs, and foliage,” said Caula Beyl, professor of horticulture at Alabama A&M University who has been working with Asian pears since the early 1990s. Beyl is seeking cultivars of Asian pear that are less affected by both fireblight and early bloom.
           Jujube are in high demand in local markets by Asian consumers, but most of the best cultivars are difficult to propagate. To induce roots to grow on jujube, AAES researchers at A&M University are using “hairy root” bacterium (Agrobacterium rhizogenes), which stimulates root growth.
           Pawpaws are another fruit with potential for Alabama growers, but pawpaws are even more difficult to root than jujube, and researchers are working to solve that problem. Pawpaws also have a short shelf life, but can be processed into desserts, marinades, and salad dressings.

Canola is known by most consumers in its “value-added” state as canola oil.

           “Many of these specialty or exotic crops, particularly jujube and pawpaws, are on the emerging side of the market,” said Beyl. “The problem is the availability of better cultivars and the high cost of materials. Another problem with pawpaws is that growers can expect high tree losses the first year. Growers must be patient because it takes five to six years before the trees start bearing.”
           Another crop with great potential for Alabama producers is canola. Canola is a leafy green vegetable much like collards, but most consumers know canola in its “value-added” state, as canola oil. Potentially, it is a good winter cash crop or an alternative crop to wheat. The only problem is that there are no mills in or near Alabama to process canola seed into oil.
           “There’s a lot of pressure to convince oil milling businesses to locate a mill in the Southeast region,” said Udai Bishnoi, professor of agronomy at Alabama A&M University who works with canola and other field crops.
           “Canola is a very good crop to grow in Alabama,” continued Bishnoi. “It grows under the same conditions as winter wheat, and works well in rotation with summer crops, and can produce more income per acre than wheat.”
           Specialty crops grown in Alabama are not limited to fruits and vegetables; AAES scientists are working in the area of specialty meat production as well.
ne shrimp.

Shifting tastes and new culinary practices may increase demand for beef that is forage-fed rather than grain-fed

           Forage-fed beef is well established in Alabama, but there may be a new market for the product in restaurants in Atlanta and Chicago. The beef is in demand for use in churrasco (pronounced shoo-HAS-ko), a culinary practice in which large pieces of meat are hung over open-flame pits and slowly roasted. Churrasco has been a culinary tradition for more than three centuries in southern Brazil, where cattle feed in open pastures.
           Currently, most beef cattle produced in the Southeast are raised initially on forages and readied for the market on grain diets in feedlots usually located out of state. Increasing and fluctuating grain prices, environmental concerns associated with feedlots, and consumer demands for lower-fat beef have generated interest in using forages as finishing diets for beef cattle. Along with scientists at Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Kentucky, AU researchers are studying the feasibility of producing forage-fed beef for the market.
           Ryegrass, which is widely planted as a winter annual in Alabama, provides excellent forage for finishing beef. Ryegrass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene than feedlot-fed beef, and beta-carotene is an antioxidant and precursor to vitamin A.

The demand for goat meat has grown in some markets of the Southeast, where populations of ethnic groups have increased. This increased demand has led to new marketing opportunities for the small farmer or rancher.

           Tuskegee is a national leader in goat research, and AAES scientists at Auburn are also studying production techniques for raising goats. The demand for goat meat has grown in some markets of the Southeastern United States, where populations of ethnic groups from areas of the world where goat meat comprises a significant portion of the diet have increased. In addition, the consumption of ethnic foods has risen as consumers explore and broaden their culinary experiences. All of this increased demand has led to new marketing opportunities for the small farmer or rancher.
           Along with researchers from Tuskegee University, Auburn scientists are looking at sustainable feeding systems, such as growing goats on ryegrass pastures or growing goats on ryegrass in combination with mimosa or other “weed” species. Scientists are also currently working on the marketing aspects of goat production. In conjunction with the USDA, researchers are developing grading standards to help establish guidelines for quality and yield. These standards are needed to better market the meat from goats.
           National consumption of shrimp has doubled in the past decade to 1 billion pounds per year, making it one of the most popular seafood items in the United States. The actual supply cannot meet this demand, but researchers at Auburn University are attempting to address the problem by exploring ways to commercially culture shrimp.

National consumption of shrimp has doubled in the past decade to one billion pounds per year. According to AU scientists, the Alabama inland shrimp industry has the potential to one day develop into a $10 million industry.

           In affiliation with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant College Program, fisheries scientists at Auburn University are studying the feasibility of growing marine shrimp in inland waters. Alabama has a rich resource of underground, low-salinity water that is not commonly used for agriculture and could be used to raise marine shrimp.One of the first objectives of the project is to evaluate the quality and quantity of underground water sources.Other research involves developing and studying the techniques for growing young shrimp in these particular waters.
           According to scientists working on the project, the Alabama inland shrimp industry is already developing and has the potential to one day become a $10 million industry.
           With help from AAES scientists at Auburn University, Alabama A&M University, and Tuskegee University, Alabama farmers are gaining a foothold in the specialty crops market, which means that Alabama consumers will have a fresh and delicious supply of healthy foods.

 

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