University of Arkansas Agri Division Inventions Generate Revenue

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

Curt Rom wants to see Arkansas’ once-vibrant strawberry industry reborn.

If that ever comes to fruition, the credit will perhaps be traced back to a handful of odd, half-pipe structures in the back corner of the Arkansas Agriculture Experiment Station. There, thanks in part to a grant from the Walmart Foundation, strawberries are being grown indoors in the winter.

Elena Garcia, a professor with the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture, was one of 20 scholars awarded grants as part of Walmart’s $3 million National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative. She and her colleagues tend to four “high tunnels,” the tube-shaped contraptions that she and others believe can revitalize strawberry production in Arkansas.

“This will help the small-acreage farmer,” said Garcia, kneeling next to a row of 2-month-old strawberry plants. “It helps them diversify. They can have cash income during the winter months.”

Garcia’s research is just one example of the Division of Agriculture’s attempts to improve the lot of Arkansas’ farmers or stock raisers. Some, as in Garcia’s case, receive grants to do research that could benefit a certain industry, while others, such as John Clark with blackberries and Billy Hargis with poultry, turn their inventions into patents that generate revenue for themselves and the UA System.

After patent fees are paid, the inventor gets 50 percent of the first $200,000 generated, and the division gets 45 percent with the remaining five going to the Arkansas System. The inventor generally gets 35 percent of further royalties.

Nathan McKinney, the assistant director of the experiment station, said that as lucrative as a few of the licenses are, the majority of funding for the work done in the Agriculture Division is supplied by sponsored research and private donors. Revenue generated from licensing is shared by the inventor, the Division of Agriculture and the University System in varying degrees.

“It’s a very small part of the overall budget,” McKinney said. “Only 20 to 30 percent of inventions generate enough money to pay for the patent. Our primary mission is to serve Arkansas and Arkansas agriculture. If we do happen to create an invention that brings money back to subsidize the research, that’s a wonderful thing.”

Strawberry Houses

Strawberries were once big business in Arkansas, Rom said, noting the annual strawberry festival in Bald Knob. Rom, a professor with the Division of Agriculture who is overseeing Walmart’s grant program, said Arkansas used to have nearly 15,000 acres of strawberry fields but now has about 100.

The decline started 25 years ago when California growers developed a cultivar allowing multiple harvests that, coupled with pitch-perfect weather, allowed that state’s growers to produce gigantic yields — sometimes more than 100,000 pounds per acre, Rom said. Arkansas growers, lucky to produce a tenth of that, couldn’t compete. No one could.

“Everybody else just quit,” said Rom, co-director of the division’s Center for Agricultural & Rural Sustainability. “We’ve got to get it back.”



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