by Marty Cook
Posted 11/25/2013 12:00 am
Updated 10 months ago
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.”
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.”
Rom said nearly all strawberries produced in the United States — 98 percent — are grown in California and Florida, and U.S. production accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s supply. But the demand for strawberries is outstripping even California’s ability to keep up, and that has renewed the hopes of those who want to see strawberries reintroduced in states where they were previously an important crop.
Growing them throughout the United States would also help sellers get the fruit to market quicker, cheaper and more efficiently. Rom said more than a quarter of harvested strawberries can be lost to spoilage before they reach store shelves, no small matter in a multibillion-dollar industry.
“The pie is getting bigger,” Rom said. “The market demand is growing 7 percent a year.”
To be effective, Rom said, Arkansas growers must be able to extend the strawberry harvest. Previously, there was a small window of harvest for Arkansas strawberries, usually the month of May, because strawberries can’t survive the cold winter nor the heat of Arkansas summers.
The advancements in genetics have brought multi-bloom strawberries to Arkansas (and other states) and high tunnels are hoped to provide suitable growing conditions in wintertime.
“We have to be able to grow strawberries for four months to make ourselves economically competitive,” Rom said. “We have the know-how to adapt the technology to our state and other states.”
The tunnels work as a type of greenhouse, Garcia and Rom said, providing heat produced by the sun’s rays hitting the polyethylene covering. Temperatures must be maintained at between 55 and 85 degrees, and the high tunnels can do that even when the temperature outside dives into the 20s.
The plants that Garcia is studying are three weeks from producing fruit — “Things don’t move fast in the plant business,” Rom joked. Rom and Garcia know that the tunnel plants must be able to produce good-tasting fruit through multiple pickings, about once a week from December to April.
If an indoor harvest can produce 20,000 to 30,000 pounds per acre, then it becomes economically viable, Rom said. A high tunnel setup varies in price, depending on the scope, but Rom said it would generally cost up to $18,000 an acre to start operations.
At $1 a pound, 20,000 pounds of harvest would produce a small profit immediately. With increasing strawberry demand, prices should remain stable and perhaps even go up in off markets during winter, Rom said, allowing for additional profit opportunities.
“Strawberries are a very, very, very capital-intensive operation,” Rom said. “There is a thin profit margin. This is not for the timid or the lazy.”
Billy Hargis has spent 30 years trying to improve the health of chickens and has made remarkable advancements in the field of probiotics and vaccines.
Hargis, who runs the UA Division of Agricuture’s Poultry Science Lab, and Memo Tellez, one of Hargis’ colleagues, created a company to commercialize their patented probiotics but turned operations over to Pacific Vet Group of Fayetteville in 2008.
The partnership has worked well for PVG, which will approach $8 million in revenue this year, relying in large part on Arkansas licenses. It has also worked well for Hargis, Tellez and the lab.
PVG sells the licensed probiotics, which generate royalties for the Division of Agriculture and the inventors, but PVG contracts with the Poultry Science Lab for sponsored research. Chris Pixley is PVG’s vice president of operations and a former doctoral student of Hargis’, and he has hired eight Arkansas graduates in the past five years to help run the company.
“Four of our six products are Arkansas licenses,” Pixley said. “We try to take advantage of the [university relationship]. It has been a real key to our success.”
Pacific Vet Group put a new probiotic called FloraStart on the market two months ago, and Hargis said 15 percent of the domestic poultry industry has used the product. FloraStart is not an Arkansas license but was developed through some of the same technology and biological platforms. The spray treatment is for newborn chicks that saturates the animal’s GI tract with helpful bacteria called pioneer colonizers that promises to lower mortality rates.
Hargis also has developed several vaccines that pharmaceutical companies are waiting to bring to market once they’ve received regulatory approval. Hargis could easily find a high-paying job in the private sector, but he’s in it for the research, finding the answer to the next question.
“Without treatment, there are more infectious diseases, more grain waste and more animal suffering,” Hargis said. “In a hungry world, those things matter. We are running out of food in the world.
“The goal is to move research to commercial and to support research in our laboratories. It’s very satisfying as a scientist that stuff you made in a laboratory can help produce food, reduce animal suffering and increases the world’s food supply.”
McKinney calls John Clark the “Bear Bryant” of blackberries. Clark, by his own estimation, has developed or helped develop nearly 50 plant patents involving blackberries, grapes, peaches, nectarines, strawberries and blueberries.
Clark created a blackberry breed called “PrimeArk 45” that has sold more than 1 million plants since 2009. “Ouachita” has sold more than 2 million since 2003, and “Natchez” has sold 1.2 million since 2007.
So when Clark acts excited about his newest creation, PrimeArk Freedom, well that’s something. It’s a thornless, multi-blooming blackberry plant that just hit the market, and Clark expects it to be his most successful creation yet, which again is something since his previous plants have brought in nearly $1 million to his program.
He found the plant he named Freedom — “freedom from thorns,” Clark explained — among 309 candidates when he mated two blackberry plants to create a thornless one. He is already fielding orders through email from big and small growers interested in his latest plant.
“You develop things, and they need to be used,” Clark said. “The main thing is food supply and growers making money. We have to find some way to create revenue. You can’t work on something that has no support.”
Clark said his program costs hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and the revenue from royalties helps fund his department’s work. Like Hargis, Clark has a big enough reputation in his field that the private sector would welcome him, but he’s at home walking the rows on a farm, looking for the next blackberry bush to take to market.
“You ask me what I am working on?” Clark said. “Making this one a whole lot better.”