For the City Times
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point researchers are working with a Portage County farm on an economic development project that could expand the farm to a “pharm.”
Knowing Dick Okray was forward-thinking and interested in growing crops other than potatoes, Paul Fowler, executive director of Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology at UW-Stevens Point, approached him about the possibility of growing cold-tolerant grapes in central Wisconsin.
The interest was not in making jelly or wine, but in extracting an antioxidant used in health supplements. Resveratrol is a natural ingredient increasingly used in hand and face creams, as a food additive and to combat diseases associated with aging, such as arthritis.
Most resveratrol comes from China, and quality is variable, Fowler said. “With homegrown products, we have good quality assurance and control.”
Okray was interested in the collaboration and worked closely with Fowler and Paul Skinner, a UW-Stevens Point alumnus and successful wine producer in California.
The partners needed to select varieties that would be hardy in central Wisconsin and produce high levels of resveratrol.
“In this instance we’re doing farming with a “ph” instead of an “f,” Okray said. Using natural products with health benefits is known as the nutraceutical industry.
The initial planting occurred in June 2014. They’ll soon be growing eight varieties on about two acres along Highway 54 south of Stevens Point as part of Plover Farms, LLC. Okray’s niece Gabrielle Eck learned about grape production, from installing plants to trellising and pruning. She learned to winterize them – a labor intensive process of digging a 12-inch trench, burying vines and covering them with straw.
Growing grapes carries all the concerns any Wisconsin grower has, Okray said, citing harsh winters, variable weather, diseases and predators, including wildlife and insects. He also wants to keep the crop away from pesticide drift.
So far, so good, Eck said.
WIST Research Associate Shona Duncan began testing components of the grapes for resveratrol. She discovered the highest concentrations are not in the skin, pulp or juice. It is highest in the canes, rachis and peduncles that support grape clusters. A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to WIST is supporting the research lab testing portion of the project.
The project seeks to determine which grape varieties grow best in a cold climate and yield profitable quantities of resveratrol. The ingredient seems to increase when plants are stressed by weather or absence of water, so Plover Farms and WIST staff also are testing different stressors and timing of harvest as well as variety of grape.
It takes three years to develop a grape crop. This is the first year production is expected to be about one-third of its potential.
In fall, after grapes are harvested, the canes will be pruned and bundled so resveratrol can be extracted.
Plover Farms credited UW-Stevens Point researchers for innovation and expertise in developing this alternative crop. “If it wasn’t for Paul and WIST, this wouldn’t even be a project. He suggested it, provided the brains, the chemistry, and connected us to Dr. Skinner,” Eck said.
While too early to assess the results, the partners hope the venture is both economically viable and sustainable. That will depend on factors such as the volume the grapes produced, the cost to extract resveratrol and the results of clinical trials on health benefits of the product. This bio-material could provide diversity to Wisconsin farm crops and add value to rural economies.
Okrays’ Plover Farms have made a real investment in this project and enthusiastically embraced the collaboration, Fowler said.
“I love the opportunity to collaborate with smart people and to try new things. Whether it succeeds is less important to me than that we tried,” Okray said.