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by Amanda McWhirt & Sarah Cato - January 28, 2021
In order to address the unique challenges of specialty crop production, we’ve been
working to establish Arkansas’s first Horticulture Discovery Farm.
Specialty crop production presents growers in the Southeast with unique challenges.
Specifically, irrigation management can be difficult but is extremely important as
it has a direct impact on the volume and quality of the fruit produced. Because current
research-based recommendations and training for irrigation in specialty crops in Arkansas
are lacking, horticulture crop producers frequently struggle with efficiently managing
irrigation, often either under or over irrigating. Additionally, growers must keep
in mind the quality of their irrigation water as it must be compliant with federal
food safety regulations under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). In order to
address these unique challenges, we’ve been working to establish Arkansas’s first
Horticulture Discovery Farm.
Growers often learn best from other growers, and the 13 established Discovery Farms
across Arkansas have proven successful in both grower education and development of
best management practices aimed at conserving soil and water resources. The plan for
this Horticulture Discovery Farm is two-fold: to develop better irrigation practices
for specialty crops and to provide specialty crop growers an on-farm demonstration
of these practices.
In order to establish this project, we partnered with Steve and Mark Morgan, owners
and operators of Peach Pickin’ Paradise in Johnson County, Arkansas. The Morgan family
has been farming peaches since the 1920’s and are well respected in their community
and across the state. This makes them ideal candidates for hosting a specialty crop
Discovery Farm as they are already model growers who other growers look to as an example
of success. Additionally, because their operation involves both cattle and fresh-market
specialty crops, they are keenly aware of federal FSMA rules about water testing for
potential human pathogens due to the possibility for livestock to be a source of these
As a part of our project, we are monitoring irrigation water quality at Peach Pickin’
Paradise to ensure it is compliant with federal food safety regulations under FSMA.
We do this by regularly collecting water samples from the Morgan’s water sources and
sending them to the Water Quality Lab in the Arkansas Water Resources Center in Fayetteville,
In addition to irrigation water quality, we are also assessing irrigation scheduling.
We monitor and record water application patterns and scheduling on both newly planted
and established peach trees, as well at water infiltration up to 36 inches deep. We
are hoping to document how soil moisture sensors can be valuable tools to improve
irrigation management in perennial crops. Irrigation on perennial crops is important
during crop production, but also after the crop is harvested, as the plants are already
beginning to set buds for the next year in the late summer and fall of the year. We
also collect plant tissue nutrient samples from the trees being monitored. In doing
this, we hope to see how improved irrigation patterns might impact nutrient uptake
by the trees.
By training Mark and Steve Morgan in the use of the installed soil moisture sensors,
we hope to help them better the timing and efficiency of their irrigation program.
As we learn with the Morgan’s, we hope to use a grower-to-grower training model, in
which we will work with the Morgan’s to teach other growers how to improve the efficiency
of their irrigation based on our research. This grower-to-grower training will take
place in workshops focused on showing best management practices for irrigation in
Discovery Farms have shown to be successful across the state of Arkansas, allowing
researchers to demonstrate effective, research-based recommendations in an on-farm
setting. With our Horticulture Discovery Farm at Peach Pickin’ Paradise, we hope to
develop much needed irrigation recommendations for specialty crop growers across the
Southeast and improve irrigation conservation practices for specialty crops in Arkansas.