By Ryan McGeeney
U of A System Division of Agriculture
As with every season, high summer in central Arkansas has its own traditions — not least among them, the hunt for the largest berries in the land.
As the blackberries grown at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Fruit Research Station in Clarksville approach peak ripeness, the dozens of seasonal field workers set about trying to find the next record-breaker lurking in the bushes.
Jackie Lee, resident director for the Fruit Research Station, said most of the harvest workers are graduate students in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences or students at the nearby University of the Ozarks.
Laura Teague, a University of Arkansas horticulture student and an intern with Amanda McWhirt, extension horticulture specialist for the Division of Agriculture, brought in the season’s champion blackberry last week, weighing in at a whopping 29.5 grams — 2 grams heavier than the previous record-holder at the station, picked in 2018.
The blackberry Teague picked was a Natchez variety, originally developed by John Clark, a long-time fruit breeder for the Division of Agriculture. The Natchez variety is now grown in similar climates throughout the United States.
The overall size of many of the berries coming out of the 2019 crop — Teague’s champion included — are in part due to the seemingly endless rainfall that has saturated so much of the state since September of last year, Lee said.
“In terms of blackberry production, we’ve had a very good year,” Lee said. “Yields are average to high.”
But the high yields come at a price, she said.
“The rainy conditions cause the fruit to not store as long,” Lee said. “It can soften the fruit. So even though we’ve had high yields, the fruit quality has suffered.”
Lee said she is excited to begin raising plots of Caddo, a new, early-ripening variety of blackberry, released from the Division of Agriculture this year.
To learn about fruit horticulture in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @UAEX_edu. To learn more about Division of Agriculture fruit breeding and research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment State online at https://aaes.uark.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch, and on Instagram at ArkAgResearch.