ALEXANDRIA, La. – Mayhaw growers from the area met recently in Alexandria to learn about new developments and opportunities in the industry as it continues to expand.

"The growers in Mayhaw Association are very innovative," said LSU AgCenter horticulturist John Pyzner. "They are encouraging research, creating new markets, developing improved varieties and mechanizing their harvesting operations."

The gathering was both the association’s meeting and a chance for growers and researchers to share the latest information about the industry that centers on the popular fruit.

The LSU AgCenter and the Mayhaw Association began studies several years ago to determine the health benefits and improve the marketability of the fruit as it moved from growing wild in the swamps to being cultivated in orchards.

"Mayhaws are a good source of antioxidants," said Dr. Charlie Graham, an associate professor of horticulture with the LSU AgCenter. "Antioxidants in fruit play a role in preventing diseases caused as a result of oxidative stress."

Oxidative stress, which releases free oxygen radicals in the body, has been implicated in a number of disorders including cardiovascular malfunction, cataracts, cancers, rheumatism and many other auto-immune diseases.

Consumers want to know the health benefits of different fruit, and Graham said additional research is needed to determine the stability of the antioxidants in processed fruit products.

"These health benefits can help growers market their product," he said.

Charlie Hutchins, an owner of Grant Fruit Processing Co. near Pollock, said he purchased 40,000 pounds of mayhaws last year and hopes to purchase more than 75,000 this year. The company currently sells jelly in more than 200 stores in the southern states and also wholesales mayhaw juice to other jelly makers.

"I need to purchase more mayhaws to meet the demand," Hutchins said.

"I pay $1.25 per pound for orchard fruit and $1 for fruit from the wild," he said, explaining, "Orchard fruit is higher quality."

Mayhaw breeders like Billy Craft of Woodworth are accepting the challenge of developing mayhaw varieties to meet the production needs of the industry.

"Developing new mayhaw varieties is a labor of love," said Craft, as he began a presentation on improved mayhaw varieties. "I strive to develop varieties that are resistant to many diseases, have uniform ripening characteristics, have less fruit shattering and are easy to shake off the plant during harvest."

Craft said Red Majesty is a new late-blooming mayhaw variety that is easy to harvest, and he said it will help growers extend the mayhaw harvest season.

Another problem for mayhaw growers is having enough resources to harvest the crop when it is ripe and ready.

Bobby Talbert, a mayhaw grower from Vidor, Texas, shared information on three different mayhaw harvesters that were developed by growers to assist in harvesting the crop this year.

"The mechanized harvesters will help growers harvest the crop easier," said Talbert, continuing, "And they may help growers expand their mayhaw operations."

The promotion of mayhaws will get a boost with the launching of a new Web site at www.mayhaw.org. In addition, mayhaws are promoted through five festivals held annually in Marion, La., Starks, La., El Dorado, Ark., Daisetta, Texas, and Colquitt, Ga.

To finish the day, conference participants also toured Grant Fruit Processing’s plant and the Little Eden mayhaw orchard.

In addition to the lectures and tours, a mayhaw cooking contest was included in the day’s educational events. Winners were Alex Laney of Ruston, who won categories for mayhaw cake, mayhaw punch, other baked mayhaw product, mayhaw jams and butter, any other mayhaw product and any other mayhaw dessert, and R.T. (Spec) Sherrill of Arcadia, who won the mayhaw jelly, mayhaw syrup and best of show categories.

"The rapid expansion of the out-of-state mayhaw product sales gives a boost to industry in Louisiana," said Pyzner. "So mayhaw production needs to expand to satisfy the demand."

John Chaney is a writer for the LSU AgCenter.

e-mail: jchaney@agcenter.lsu.edu