Some Georgia farmers are considering growing pomegranates, the multi-seeded, high-value, hard-to-peel fruit, which has surged in popularity in recent years, said Dan MacLean, a researcher with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences based in Tifton.
"Pomegranate is moving beyond a curiosity crop in Georgia, and now farmers are making a go of establishing a solid industry," MacLean said.
From juice to energy bars to salad dressings, pomegranates have found their way into supermarkets and kitchens across the country.
The interest in pomegranates, especially around the southeast Georgia town of Alma, comes from "blueberry farmers wanting to diversify," according to Brantley Morris of Morris Nursery.
Blueberry farmers finish their harvests in the summer. Adding pomegranates to their fields would give them another harvest in the fall, and a way to balance the books in any given year if the blueberries don't produce like they had hoped.
On the UGA campuses in Tifton and Athens, MacLean and plant pathologist Harald Scherm are trying to figure out how to keep pomegranates in the best shape possible. Disease pressure brought on by Georgia's humid climate isn't making it easy.
Scherm and graduate student Lucky Mehra have found Cercospora fruit spot on pomegranates MacLean picked from several test plots in Tifton, Byron and Alma. Fruit spot doesn't hurt the arils, or the fruity flesh inside, but it does make the fruit look bad.
"It's a new disease in Georgia," Mehra said. "It's been reported in India. It's easy to control, but we don't have chemical products registered for pomegranate. Getting them registered, that's a big deal."
Controlling diseases is one of many aspects of production that Scherm and MacLean hope to work out. So far, they've only been able to look at the pomegranate fruit at harvest time.
"On the pathology end, we like to look at fruit in a season-long fashion," Scherm said. "How do you actually manage them? There's a lot that needs to be done."
"There are a ton of production-issue questions to look at," MacLean said. "We've looked at the fruit, but not at the trees themselves."
From hundreds of pomegranate cultivars, MacLean and Scherm have been able to find about 20 that do well in Georgia. Fruit from these cultivars are being evaluated for juice-making potential and antioxidant contents by Casimir Akoh and Karina Martino in the CAES Department of Food Science and Technology in Athens.
Thanks to Stephanie Schupska, news editor with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Billy Skaggs is Agriculture Agent and County Extension Coordinator for the UGA Cooperative Extension in Hall County, 770-535-8293.