I'm in the fields at the University of Arkansas' Fruit Research Station north of Clarksville. Margaret Worthington of the UA faculty is trying to explain to me what a strange year it has been.
"It got down to 15 degrees below zero up here in February, and we had a freeze as late as April 21," she says. "Our blackberries were hit hard. Most of our peaches survived, unlike those at some of the commercial orchards near here. In the grape vineyards, I would describe this as a rebuilding year."
In Wednesday's column, I outlined the history of this research station, which has been helping fruit growers across the state since it was established in 1948. Part of the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture, the station has earned a sterling reputation for the work it does. What's unusual about that is the fact that Arkansas isn't a major fruit-growing state. But it once was. Apple orchards were the economic engine of northwest Arkansas long before Walmart came along.
"What's considered the first commercial apple orchard in the state was planted by a Cherokee woman near Maysville in Benton County," Roy Curt Rom wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "When forced to free her slave labor after the Civil War, she was unable to continue with the orchard. Other commercial orchards were planted in the 1870s. These orchards, frequently planted on land exploited by years of corn and tobacco, increased in size and number. By 1880, apple production exceeded what freighters could haul, and most of the crop was wasted.
"The expanding apple belt of the Ozarks had become a production area isolated from markets because it was devoid of sufficient transportation access. The entry of railroad lines into the state--such as one that reached Fayetteville in 1881 and Lincoln in 1901--offered access to markets as far away as Maine and Canada. These new outlets ultimately resulted in a massive increase in commercial orchards planted in northwest Arkansas from 1880-1920."
Acreage increased from a few hundred acres to 40,000 in Benton County alone by 1900. There were almost as many acres in Washington County. In fact, they were the two largest apple-producing counties in the country.
The peach industry was also big early in the 20th century, especially around Clarksville, on Crowley's Ridge in east Arkansas, and around Nashville in southwest Arkansas. Like the apple industry, peach production has steadily declined across the state in recent decades.
"In 1952 and again in 1953, disaster struck growers as late freezes followed early warm spells," James Jackson wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Two-thirds of peach crops were destroyed, and production sank to 150,000 bushels, hurting both producers and brokers. Brokers contracted with growers in California, Florida and southern Texas--places without late frost. Arkansas growers lost the market, and the impact was devastating."
Growers had enough.
"For Howard County growers, the only option was to pull up trees and convert land for other purposes, often pasture for cattle or to raise chickens," Jackson wrote. "Johnson County fared little better. Growers learned to expect a full crop in three out of five years, while others reported that profits had ceased as far back as 1950. While Arkansas is currently not a major producer of peaches, the substation in Clarksville continues to be successful in creating varieties."
In 2005, UA professors James Moore and John Clark were recognized by the Legislature for creating varieties of white-fleshed peaches suited to Arkansas' climate.
In 2017, Clark received what's known as the Impact Award from the National Association of Plant Breeders. He was the sixth recipient since the award was initiated in 2012 and the first honoree in fruit breeding.
Moore was largely responsible for the university's early fruit-breeding efforts. In a 2006 interview, he said: "I wanted blackberries without thorns, peaches without fuzz and grapes without seeds, all that could be grown in Arkansas and produce marketable fruit."
While Arkansas likely will never again be a major player on the national fruit scene, the trend toward consumers demanding locally produced products bodes well for growers who sell at farmers' markets and to farm-to-table restaurants. And the UA will be there to help them.
On the day I'm in Johnson County, I'm joined by Deacue Fields III, dean of the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences. Fields came to 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, La. His father taught agricultural courses from 1965-71 and later worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I raised cattle with my dad, so I had an interest in agriculture from a young age," he tells me.
He earned a bachelor's degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1993, and a master's degree from the University of Missouri two years later. Fields obtained a doctorate in agricultural economics from Louisiana State University.
"The University of Arkansas is a hidden gem," he says. "The work you see being done at this research station is an example of that. In very few places do you have the same institution serving as a state's flagship university and its land grant university. Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Arkansas, and we have a duty to support it."
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.