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The native variety is both sweet and juicy

GrapesLoftusIt’s that time of year again when the dark purple and golden grapes of Florida are ripe for the picking, just in time to bring a refreshing quencher to the dog days of summer.  For a few short weeks each year, Florida’s native muscadine grapes adorn vines in the wild and in area farms and vineyards.

Saturday, Aug. 13 marks the official opening of grape picking season at the Loftus Family Farm in Alachua.  Other area u-pick grape operations are also underway as the fruits ripen.

Weather, as unpredictable as it is, has a significant impact on the health of grape vines and on how long it takes their fruit to ripen.

This year’s scorching temperatures seem to be accelerating that ripening process, especially on later season varieties of muscadines says Don Loftus, a local farmer and viticulturist.

“It appears that some of my Supreme grapes are already ripening although they aren’t typically ready until late August or early September,” he said.

On the other hand, cold weather can damage a vineyard.

“The winter freezes have killed about 25 to 30 of my vines,” said Loftus. “That’s about 10 percent of my crop, but we still have plenty more.”

Loftus got into the business of growing muscadine grapes about six years ago when he started planning for his retirement.  Since retiring from the University of Florida last summer, he has dedicated his time to the Loftus Family Farm, which includes the muscadine grape vineyard he has developed and grown from scratch.  Well into the throws of retirement, Loftus now realizes he left one full-time job for another, operating a vineyard and farm.

In 2004, Loftus first started converting the field that once grew persimmons, which were also negatively affected by North Florida’s winter weather patterns, into 1.5 acres of grapes.

The u-pick farm is one of a handful in the area and is open to the public.  The Loftus Family Farm specializes in the ‘Ison’ and ‘Supreme’ varieties of muscadine grapes, but is branching out into others as well.

This year, Loftus began adding a new variety, the ‘Delicious,’ a self-pollinating muscadine developed by the University of Florida.  He’s using the new variety to replace some of the vines lost to winter damage.  It will take a few years before the ‘Delicious’ will be ready for picking.  When they are, Loftus says, they hold promise as an excellent tasting fruit.

The ‘Delicious’ variety is also disease resistant and is among the top yielding muscadines.

Loftus said he plans to expand the vineyard by another half-acre, probably including golden muscadine varieties.  Loftus has his hands full meticulously attending to the 14 rows of grape vines, each several hundred feet long and none of which are sprayed with potentially dangerous chemicals and pesticides.

Indigenous to the southeast region of North America, muscadine grapes ripen in late summer.   Right about now seems to be a good time to pick grapes at the Loftus Family Farm where pickers will be welcomed for the official season opening on Saturday. Meanwhile, Loftus says thousands of pounds of the juicy dark purple and black grapes await eager pickers.

The vineyard has already become a popular spot among many people who are aware of the u-pick farm.  Loftus credits some of that success to the well-manicured rows of grapes and relaxing atmosphere at his family’s farm.  Loftus said many pickers like to eat the grapes as they are, some use them for producing wine and others for making jelly and sauces and freezing for later consumption. Florida’s $20 million-a-year grape industry is typically the second- or third-largest market for table grapes and wine in the country.

The Loftus Family Farm keeps it simple again this year, charging an even $1 per pound of grapes.

The address for the vineyard is 15585 NW 29 Street, Gainesville.  East of Alachua on NW 156th Avenue, the farm is at the midway point between State Road 121 and County Road 231.

Generally open from mid-August to early October, pickers are welcome on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 until 6 p.m.  Appointments are also available Monday through Friday for anyone wishing to arrange a picking party.

Additional photos, health benefits, directions to the vineyard and uses for muscadine grapes and other information are available at LoftusFamilyFarm.com