In March, I had the honor of serving as emcee for the annual Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame induction banquet. One of the inductees was John Clark, a distinguished professor at the University of Arkansas who's probably the world's foremost expert on blackberries. I simply referred to him that day as the Berry Man.
Clark isn't a native Arkansan, but he's a Southerner and understands the importance of blackberries to a Southern summer. He was born in Jackson, Miss., and went on to receive his bachelor's degree in 1979 and his master's degree in 1980 from Mississippi State University. He moved to Fayetteville in July 1980. In 1983, he received his doctorate in plant science from the University of Arkansas.
Clark has developed or co-developed 62 fruit cultivars of blackberries, peaches, nectarines, grapes and blueberries. These developments have resulted in more than 21 million plants being sold. The wholesale value of these plants in the nursery trade is estimated to be more than $40 million. Of the plants sold, the majority were blackberries with a wholesale crop value of more than $400 million annually.
At the banquet, I noted that my father was, to put it mildly, a wild berry connoisseur. When we were quail hunting each winter, he would look for wild blackberry and dewberry vines. In the spring, we would take to the rural roads to make sure those vines were blooming. Then, in the summer, we would fight chiggers and ticks to gather berries for cobblers. A wild berry story was even told at my father's funeral.
Knowing that background, Clark sent me an email the week after the induction banquet with an invitation to visit him at the Fruit Research Station near Clarksville, which is operated by the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture.
"Fruit season is the most fun, from early June with blackberries and a few blueberries and then on until October with muscadine grapes," he wrote. "There are peaches, nectarines and table grapes in between. Just let me know when you take a notion to come."
It was an invitation I couldn't resist. So it was that I found myself northeast of Clarksville on a sultry Thursday in June, eating blackberries straight from the vine as the Berry Man explained the various varieties.
The research station, which has great views of the Ozark Mountains to the north, is named for Cole Westbrook, who directed it from 1948-76. What originally was known as the Peach Substation began near Lamar in cooperation with the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association and the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. It moved to Red Lick Mountain in 1959. The current headquarters building opened in 2007. Two years later, it was named in Westbrook's honor. A peach substation also opened in Howard County in southwest Arkansas in 1948. That station no longer operates.
Clark lived at the Johnson County station as its resident director from 1983-94 before moving to Fayetteville. Even though northwest Arkansas is home, Clark still spends a lot of time at the Fruit Research Station. When the berries are ripening, he often drives to Clarksville on a Sunday, checks into the Holiday Inn Express and finds himself in the field as early as 6 a.m. on Monday.
"It's best to do the breeding where you're going to grow the plant," Clark said. "As a breeder, your job is to try to put complementary traits together. You start with thousands of possible varieties, narrow it down to hundreds and then release just a few. Blackberries have been our biggest success. The University of Arkansas is known around the world for its blackberry varieties. This is the time of year that you can work in the field until almost 8:30 p.m. if you so choose. It's when we evaluate the ripe berries and find out the traits they have."
Blackberry varieties released by the UA are grown on every continent except Antarctica. People come to Johnson County from around the world to see what's being developed. Clark calls it a combination of science and art.
"It can take eight to 12 years of work to release a new variety," he said. "You have to be familiar with the crops, and you also have to be familiar with what farmers want. It took us 25 years to produce a thornless blackberry. In 1989, we released the variety known as Navaho."
Clark said those in his business have to find the happy medium between "releasing too many varieties that are poorly tested or releasing nothing."
Last year, Clark received what's known as the Impact Award from the National Association of Plant Breeders. He's the sixth recipient of the award since it was initiated in 2012 and the first winner in fruit breeding. Clark is quick to give credit to the late James Moore, who began the UA's fruit breeding program in 1964. In a 2006 interview, Moore said: "I wanted blackberries without thorns, peaches without fuzz and grapes without seeds, all that could be grown in Arkansas and produce marketable fruit." He accomplished those goals.
"Dr. Moore was driven by a desire to help Arkansas farmers," Clark said. "We're still doing that, but this program might not have lasted unless we had broadened our scope."
Royalties earned by the world-renowned plant breeding program allow additional efforts. Success truly begets success at the Fruit Research Station.
"Berries have the highest profit margin on the produce shelf," the Berry Man said. "You're looking at thousands of plants out here. All of them have the potential to be a new variety that we release, but that potential is quite low."
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.
Editorial on 07/11/2018
Print Headline: The Berry Man