UACES Facebook Arkansas's First Horticulture Discovery Farm
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Arkansas Fruit, Vegetable and Nut Update

Arkansas's First Horticulture Discovery Farm

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.

Sarah Cato

Amanda McWhirt

Mark Morgan

Mike Daniels

Andrew Sharpley

Peaches ready to be picked at Peach Pickin' Paradise

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.

A box of picked peaches from Peach Pickin Paradise

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.

Kids enjoying picking peaches at Peach Pickin' Paradise.

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 pathogens.

Members of the Morgan family.

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, Arkansas.

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. 

Soil moisture sensors being installed.
Soil moisture sensors being installed.

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 specialty crops.

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.