By Brandon Martin
The humble muscadine grape may have properties that inhibit the growth of and even kill the COVID-19 virus, said Tim Belcher, who owns Rolling Meadows Farms.
Belcher discovered that North Carolina (NC) State University in November published a study citing the ability of muscadine grapes to block the function of a particular enzyme in the coronavirus.
Enzymes, or protease, are important to the viability of viruses, according to De-Yu Xie, professor of plant and microbial biology at NC State and author of the study.
Researchers demonstrated that the “main protease” in the virus reacted when confronted with different plant chemical compounds known for their potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
“Muscadine grapes contain these inhibitory chemicals in their skins and seeds. Plants use these compounds to protect themselves, so it is not surprising that plant leaves and skins contain these beneficial compounds,” Xie said. “If we can inhibit or deactivate this protease, the virus will die.”
After reading that, “I was really surprised,” said Belcher, who owns the farm with his wife, Debbie. “I read and heard that green tea is also good. Any kind of our small, natural fruits have a lot of antioxidants, so it kind of made sense, but I had no idea that (muscadines) had enzymes that could block COVID.”
Muscadine grapes are among several staple crops on the farm that straddles the border of Henry and Franklin counties, just off Figsboro Road.
After harvesting, Belcher turns the grapes into jellies and juices.
“Any of the jellies are $5. My 12–ounce juice is $3, and the 25–ounce juice is $6,” he said. “The beauty of it is it’s just juice. All natural and no additives.”
Those unfamiliar with muscadine grapes by name will immediately recognize them by their description.
“They are really, really sweet but they have a leathery skin on them,” Belcher said. “A lot of people will take them and bite the tip-end to squeeze the pulp into their mouth and throw the hull away. To receive the best benefit, eat the hull and the seed.”
Belcher said the grapes grow well and the vines require little care.
“Muscadines and scuppernongs are so simple and easy. You don’t spray. They grow like a weed. Our soil here really seems to suit them fine. I’m assuming, to the best of my knowledge, that they were some type of native grape here,” he said.
Belcher noted that “when you plant them, you want to clean out from around them and mulch them, and definitely trellis them. You want some type of arbor or something because they are prolific. They need something that you can tie them to. You will need to trim them up. I tend to let mine free grow, which is kind of a mess, but they really throw the grapes out that way.”
He had plenty of leftovers after canning and eating as well.
“I bet I ate five gallons over the summer,” Belcher added.
The farm has been in the family since he was “about 5 or 6 years old,” Belcher said, and recalled his father and grandfather raised cattle, hogs, chickens and “all kinds of critters” to sell to meat processing companies like Valleydale and Smithfield.
“I left the farm when I turned 18. After a few years away, I saw how things were on the outside and how the products that we raised were being turned around to the public. I thought I could do a better job,” he said. “I came back and built a small greenhouse and started selling produce and plants at the Farmers’ Market in Martinsville. It kept growing from there. We started building more greenhouses and raising more produce. Eventually I started selling on the Roanoke City Farmers’ Market.”
“We have a full retail operation. We actually supply to a lot of the different places around,” Belcher said. “We sell to probably five or six locations in Roanoke, and we have a couple of locations in the Martinsville-Henry County area that we sell plants and products.”
It currently is the off-season for produce, but a variety of other plants, succulents, and pottery are available.
“Hypothetically, let’s say it’s the month of April or May,” customers “could get an extensive line of all different types of jellies and juices that comes from the farm here,” Belcher said. “When it’s the time for produce, we have anything from 20 to 30 different types of tomatoes, 10 to 12 types of peppers, 4 to 5 types of cucumbers and 10 types of squash.
“We will have watermelons, cantaloupe, peaches and that stuff. We are the go-to person for damsons (plums). Hardly anyone has the old-timey damsons. Just like the muscadines and scuppernong,” he said, adding that the fruit is sold in the fall.
The Belchers are in the process of setting up the greenhouses for spring, and each soon will be packed with all types of offerings.
“When you come, you can buy pots, soil, and any kind of house plant, garden plant, herb, hanging basket, or tropical,” Belcher said. “We have lots of yard art and home decor.”
Unlike most farms, Belcher doesn’t shut down during the cold months.
“We have a meat processing plant here where we do meat for the hunters,” he said. “We do bologna, pepperoni, and sausage. We do about 20 different types of jerky. This is a really big business for the fall months. It kind of carries us through the winter.”
Belcher said he routinely takes his frozen fruit to be canned commercially.
“My products were derived and came from the research program at Virginia Tech. The products were manufactured in the research labs. I’ve got a ton of brilliant minds behind my product,” Belcher said. “We first started with this stuff years ago, and we were literally making everything on site. For a lot of the stuff I was doing, I had to go through NC State or Virginia Tech to have my ingredients list approved before you could do it.”
After a while, Belcher decided to sell some of the items.
“I reached out and started looking for a commercial canner who would do my stuff for me, the way that I wanted it done,” he said. “Unless I got really crazy with the recipes. My volume got so big that we outgrew being able to do the process here.”
Local hemp products are another budding part of the business.
“We got started at Virginia Tech for the research grant on hemp. We are probably the largest in the area, here, with hemp-related products,” Belcher said. “We sell to Simply Hemp in Collinsville, Ridgeway Farm Market carries a full display. We sell it on the Historic Farmers’ Market as well.”
Belcher said his business clientele for hemp and cannabinoid (CBD) products is diverse.
“We get a lot of veterans who use it. They use it for pain and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” he said. “We have a lot of parents who are taking their children off these strong drugs like Ritalin, and they are using the CBD. It’s working for them. I’ve got a lot of older people that just say they can’t do without it.”
According to Belcher, his supply isn’t limited to only human family members.
“We even offer it for your dogs and cats,” Belcher added. “This is a really big hit. We’ve got some bacon flavor in it. Let’s say there is a thunderstorm, you can give this to your dog if it’s one that gets really upset” during a storm, “or if your pet doesn’t travel well, you can give this to them to calm them.”
An ongoing battle for Belcher is battling the stigma of CBD, but his door is open to explain it to those who may have questions.
For more information, call Belcher at (540) 519-5799.