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The Arkansas Fruit Research Station Bears Sweet Fruit

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When James N. Moore decided to leave his position with the United States Department of Agriculture in Maryland and return to his home state of Arkansas in 1963, he was told “he would never be heard from again.” Moore headed to his alma mater, the University of Arkansas, to begin his professorship in horticulture in 1964. That one move set in motion the establishment of Arkansas’s world-renowned fruit breeding program, famous for cross-breeding fruits to create new varieties of apples, peaches, berries and even the cotton candy grape.

Moore grew up in Plumerville, Arkansas and served in the Air Force before earning an associate degree at Arkansas Tech University. He attended the University of Arkansas and earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in horticulture. He headed for Rutgers University for his doctorate in horticulture, where he soaked in the knowledge from Rutgers’ fruit breeding program. Moore then obtained a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a fruit breeder and worked with the department from 1961 to 1963, when he made the decision to return home. Moore immediately began the fruit breeding program at Arkansas.

The program is based at the Arkansas Fruit Research Station located at the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains in Clarksville. This isn’t a genetic modification program. Under the vision Moore planted, the program cross-breeds a variety of fruits to improve characteristics like quality, adaptability, yield, and, of course, flavor and produce fruit cultivars that can be distributed to growers around the region and world. The program has commercialized 70 genotypes of plants, from strawberries, table grapes, wine grapes, and blackberries. Jackie Lee is the resident director of the fruit station. Lee is the first woman to direct a farm research station in Arkansas. She got her doctoral degree from the University of Arkansas in entomology in 2008. She took the reins at the research station in 2018 and directs everything from planting, data collection, plant propagation, cuttings and hosting workshops for growers.

Arkansas Fruit Research Station
Dr. Jackie Lee is resident director of the Fruit Research Station.

“Breeding takes a very long time,” Lee says. “It usually takes about 10 years for a variety to be released.” The cotton candy grape is a good example of how long it can take for a new breed to come to the market. The idea originated in the early 2000s. Dr. John Clark, Moore’s successor to the fruit breeding program, developed a hybrid of a table grape with a unique flavor. He sent this grape cultivar to California, where it was combined with another to produce the tiny, sweet cotton candy grapes you can now buy every fall. It took 10 years though for that combination to be successful from the vine to the table. Although the cotton candy grape’s grandparent was cultivated in Arkansas, the cotton candy grape is actually not able to be cultivated in Arkansas’s climate.

The cotton candy grape caught national media attention for the fruit breeding program, but the fruit research station is actually more famous for its blackberry program. Dr. Clark developed the first primocane fruiting blackberries, which means the plant bears fruit in its first season instead of waiting a year for growth to occur. “This revolutionized the blackberry industry. Every blackberry you consume is an Arkansas variety or has an Arkansas parent,” Lee says. It’s this kind of innovation that has made the fruit breeding program world-renowned for its work. The program has released 41 varieties of blackberries and garnered $2.5 million in blackberry royalties. The latest variety, called Ponca, was released in 2019. It is a high-yielding, thornless berry and also “the sweetest berry you’ll ever taste,” according to Lee.

Arkansas Fruit Research Station

The research doesn’t stop there. The fruit research station is currently conducting a study on the feasibility of growing hops in Arkansas. “What I enjoy the most is trying to increase specialty crop production in our state, and to serve our clientele, which is our growers,” Lee says. Hops definitely falls under that specialty crops category and could have interesting implications for Arkansas growers and the Arkansas microbrewery industry as well.

Another project Lee is excited about is the release of two new grape varieties in the coming year. While she can’t disclose what they are, the program is hard at work on a variety of muscadine grapes to make it more palatable as a table grape. Muscadines, which are native to Arkansas, are traditionally only used to make wine because of their tough skin and seediness. Dr. Margaret Worthington, who is appointed to take over the fruit breeding program when Dr. Clark retires, is currently working to develop a seedless variety with a crisper texture similar to table grapes you might purchase at the supermarket. Other types of grapes the program has developed are the Enchantment and Opportunity varieties. Both of these are wine grapes currently being used by Arkansas wineries to create a truly local wine.

Arkansas Fruit Research Station

The work being done in Arkansas’s fruit breeding program is science at its best. “All of the cross-breeding is done by hand,” Lee says. “For example, whenever the muscadines flower, we go out and we hand collect all of the pollen. Then we go out and we emasculate the plant that we’re going to pollinate, which there are about 200 or more flowers in a cluster. So we’ll peel off all of the male plant parts on those flowers, and then we’ll hand pollinate them all. The process is very, very tedious.” Though the work can be slow and painstaking, there is no mistaking the results.

Though the fruit research station is focused on the science of cross-breeding, it’s not the only focus. “Our mission is to conduct research and to help Arkansas and our economy. We try our best to support and really dig into that mission,” Lee states. “We do a lot of production studies. We look at different trellising systems, we look at different varieties, we look at different fertility methods, all to get research to help our end users, our growers.” These growers are mainly from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri and the research station holds workshops on pruning plants, blackberry production and whatever researchers are currently working on. Though many growers are regional, the station also has visitors every summer from around the world. These are growers interested in learning about the varieties of fruit being grown and licensing the technology being developed and used at the station.

The fruit breeding program has come a long way since Dr. Moore returned to Arkansas in 1964. Not only was the admonition that he would never be heard from again not true, Moore initiated a program that has become an example worldwide. Cotton candy grapes and sweet blackberries are only samples of what the fruit breeding program has accomplished, but if their successes are any indication, the program has much more fruit to bear.

Learn more about the Arkansas Fruit Research Station through the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

Photos are courtesy of Dr. Jackie Lee and used with permission.

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Kimberly S. Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has hiked the Inca Trail, walked into Panama on a rickety wooden bridge and once missed the last train of the night in Paris and walked several miles home (with friends). She believes magic can be found in life and books, loves to watch the stars appear, and still dreams of backpacking the world. Now she writes adventures to send her characters on journeys, too. Pen & Quin: International Agents of Intrigue - The Mystery of the Painted Book is her debut novel. Find out more at KSMitchell.com.

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