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OPINION | REX NELSON: Fruit in the hills

by Rex Nelson | September 22, 2021 at 3:34 a.m.

The timing couldn't have been better for the invitation to head to the Ozarks. John Clark was on the line, letting me know that blackberries and peaches were ripe in the hills north of Clarksville.

Three years ago, I wrote a column about Clark headlined "The berry man." This University of Arkansas professor is the world's foremost blackberry expert. Clark has developed or co-developed dozens of fruit cultivars of blackberries, peaches, blueberries, nectarines and grapes.

Blackberry varieties released by the university are grown on every continent except Antarctica. People come to Johnson County from around the world to see what's being developed.

It's a hot Tuesday in July, and the Fruit Research Station, operated by the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture, is hopping. Junior faculty members from Fayetteville are spending the day here and listening to talks in the auditorium. Clark talks about growing up on a dairy farm in Mississippi and then launching an academic career that has allowed him to build relationships worldwide.

"I can remember in the 1990s when we were excited to get $40,000 a year in royalties from things developed here," he says.

That figure has now grown to several million dollars annually.

"This has been quite the place to work for the past 41 years," Clark says. "I first visited the station in late July 1979. I was here as a graduate student from Mississippi State attending a meeting for grape breeders. I sat down on the porch of the old building that was here at the time and thought to myself, 'I wonder what's over that hill?' Boy, have I found out the past four decades.

"Looking back, it's hard to believe what I've found over the hill among the thousands of plants out there. What a treat it has been."

In 1948, a research substation was established on 40 acres near Lamar. There were two houses, an equipment shed and a well on the land, which was provided by the Johnson County Peach Growers Association. The first resident director was Cole Westbrook, for whom the main building at the current research station is named. Westbrook stayed on as director until 1976.

Peaches were big business in Johnson County in the first half of the 20th century, as was also the case in Howard County in southwest Arkansas.

"By 1901, Johnson County shipped up to 10 boxcar loads of peaches a year," James Jackson writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "The season lasted only two weeks, typically mid-July to the first of August. From 1912-15, growers produced big crops, but the price per bushel remained low.

"The peak year for the Nashville area was 1950 when 425 orchards collected more than 400,000 bushels. The year 1925 was also a productive year as 250,000 bushels were shipped and the price hit $2 a bushel. The top production year for the state was 1940 when nearly 2.3 million bushels were produced. The best year for profit may have been 1944 when the federal government set a price ceiling of $4.50 a bushel."

In 1949, the Johnson County Peach Growers Association purchased 50 acres on Red Lick Mountain, setting the stage for the current station. The research facility was designed to assist those growing apples, pears, plums, nectarines, apricots, cherries, grapes, peaches, blueberries and blackberries. The primary peach substation opened in Howard County in 1949. That station no longer operates.

The university added 160 acres in Johnson County in 1965. Two irrigation ponds were constructed. In 1970, two greenhouses were built.

In 1976, James Moore started the university's blueberry breeding program. Clark, who later took blackberry breeding to the next level, was stationed in Johnson County as resident director from 1983-94 before moving to Fayetteville. He still spends a lot of time in Johnson County each summer.

The first Elberta peach orchards were planted in Johnson County in 1893.

"The 1879 development of the yellow-fleshed Elberta variety in Georgia by Samuel Rumph made peach growing a viable industry," Jackson writes. "The Elberta, named for Rumph's wife, softened more slowly than other varieties. Because of this advantage and development of refrigerated railroad transportation, peach transport became possible.

"As railroad spurs spread westward into the countryside, commercial peach production reached Arkansas in areas such as Crowley's Ridge, Clarksville and Nashville. ... The first trees were planted with grubbing hoes or crowbars. Early growers' methods were primitive and inconsistent. Growers soon formed associations to help one another."

Much of the UA's fruit research these days is done by Margaret Worthington, a North Carolina native who received her doctorate in crop science from North Carolina State University. Worthington speaks to the junior faculty members about fruit breeding and the constant efforts to obtain federal and industry grants.

"We're always thinking about how we can get better products to market faster," Worthington says. "If you're not careful, you lose yourself in the process. It's important that you not forget the end goal."

"The best is yet to come," Clark tells faculty members just before they break for lunch. Of course, fresh peaches and blackberries are on the menu for dessert. During lunch, the multitalented Clark plays his own guitar compositions.

In these columns, I like to feature Arkansans and Arkansas entities who punch above their weight. In the area of fruit research, Arkansas has some of the most talented people in the world at what they do.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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