Fields on the ground
I’m in the fields at the University of Arkansas Fruit Research Station north of Clarksville. Margaret Worthington from AU Faculty tries to explain to me how odd this has been.
“It got down to 15 degrees below zero here in February, and we had a frost until April 21,” she says. “Our blackberries were hit hard. Most of our peaches have survived, unlike some of the commercial orchards near here. In the vineyards, I would describe this as a year of rebuilding.”
In Wednesday’s column, I described the story of this research station, which has been helping fruit growers across the state since its inception in 1948. Part of the Agriculture Division of the University of Arkansas, the station has gained a solid reputation for its work. It does. What’s unusual about this is the fact that Arkansas is not a major fruit-producing state. But that was once. Apple orchards were the economic engine of Northwest Arkansas long before the arrival of Walmart.
“What is considered the state’s first commercial apple orchard was planted by a Cherokee woman near Maysville in Benton County,” Roy Curt Rom wrote for the Arkansas Encyclopedia of the Central Arkansas Library System. “When she was forced to release her slave labor after the civil war, she couldn’t continue with the orchard. Other commercial orchards were planted in the 1870s. These orchards, often planted on land tapped by years of corn and tobacco, increased in size and by 1880 the production of apples exceeded what freighters could carry. , and most of the harvest was wasted.
“The expanding apple belt of the Ozarks had become a production area isolated from markets because it lacked sufficient access to transportation. access to markets as far apart as Maine and Canada. These new opportunities eventually led to a massive increase in the commercial orchards planted in Northwest Arkansas from 1880 to 1920.
The area fell from a few hundred acres to 40,000 in Benton County alone in 1900. There were almost as many acres in Washington County. In fact, they were the two largest apple producing counties in the country.
The fishing industry was also important at the turn of the 20th century, particularly around Clarksville, on Crowley’s Ridge in eastern Arkansas, and around Nashville in southwest Arkansas. Like the apple industry, peach production has declined steadily across the state over the past decades.
“In 1952 and again in 1953, disaster struck growers as late frosts followed early heat waves,” wrote James Jackson for The Arkansas Encyclopedia. “Two-thirds of the peach crop has been destroyed and production has fallen to 150,000 bushels, hurting both producers and brokers. was devastating. “
Producers have had enough.
“For Howard County producers, the only option was to pull trees and convert land to other uses, often pasture for cattle or for raising chickens,” Jackson wrote. “Johnson County fared a bit better. Growers have learned to expect a full harvest in three out of five years, while others have reported that profits ceased as early as 1950. Although Arkansas is not currently a major producer of peaches, the sub – Clarksville station continues to be successful in creating varieties.
In 2005, UA professors James Moore and John Clark were recognized by the legislature for creating white-fleshed peach varieties suitable for the Arkansas climate.
In 2017, Clark received what is known as the Impact Award from the National Association of Plant Breeders. He was the sixth recipient since the award was created in 2012 and the first winner in fruit selection.
Moore was largely responsible for the college’s early fruit breeding efforts. In an interview in 2006, he said, “I wanted thornless blackberries, downless peaches, and seedless grapes, anything that could be grown in Arkansas and produce marketable fruit.”
While Arkansas is unlikely to ever be a major player in the national fruit scene again, the trend of consumers to demand local produce bodes well for growers selling at farmers’ markets and farm-to-farm restaurants. table. And the AU will be there to help them.
The day I am in Johnson County, I am joined by Deacue Fields III, dean of Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. Fields arrived in Fayetteville in 2018 from Auburn University, where he served as professor and chair of the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology.
Fields understands the needs of niche producers. He grew up on a small farm near Winnsboro, Louisiana. His father taught agriculture from 1965 to 1971 and then worked for the US Department of Agriculture.
“I raised cattle with my father, so I got interested in farming from a young age,” he tells me.
He received a BA from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1993 and an MA from the University of Missouri two years later. Fields received a doctorate in agricultural economics from Louisiana State University.
“The University of Arkansas is a hidden gem,” he says. “The work that you see being done at this research station is an example of that. In very few places you have the same institution serving as a state’s flagship university and its land grant university. Agriculture. is the # 1 industry in Arkansas, and we have a duty to support it. “
Editor-in-chief Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.